The independent documentary, "For Once in My Life," will be screened at Illinois Public Media's Community Cinema series. The film is an infectious, expectation-defying look at the Spirit of Goodwill band, a unique assembly of singers and musicians with a wide range of mental and physical challenges. The screening will be followed by a discussion of local issues. Community Engagement Producer Henry Radcliffe talks about the documentary will Illinois Public Media's Celeste Quinn.
Illinois Public Media News
A legal dispute between the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (C-U MTD) and the Champaign Southwest Mass Transit District (CSWMTD) is a step closer to heading to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The C-U MTD board voted unanimously Wednesday to appeal a ruling by the Fourth District Appellate Court stating that the two transit districts can share boundaries.
The CSWMTD was approved by voters in 2006 as a response to the C-U MTD annexing property in Southwest Champaign. Voters wanted to prevent C-U MTD service from coming into certain neighborhoods. Some people who live where the two transit districts overlap pay property taxes for both services, even though the CSWMTD provides no transit service.
"We don't think that Illinois law permits double taxation for identical services," C-U MTD attorney Marc Ansel said. "There have been cases in Illinois involving identical local governments seeking to tax and service the same territory, and the supreme court of Illinois we believe has said that can't be done in the state of Illinois."
Ansel said he hopes the Illinois Supreme Court will decide to hear the case within a couple of months. He said if that happens, oral arguments could begin later this year.
Meanwhile, the CSWMTD board voted to appeal the appellate court's ruling earlier this month also stating that residents should not have to pay higher taxes for two transit services. If there is a final court decision, CSWMTD Chairman Ed Vaughan acknowledges that his group may have to come to a decision about whether to actually provide bus service.
"We've been recognizing that we've got that coming for quite some time, and every one of us pondering exactly what we think we ought to do," Vaughan said. "And we will have that discussion.
At a time when Champaign's city council is considering cuts to the police and fire departments, a candidate for mayor suggests cutting in other areas of city staff.
Don Gerard unveiled his own proposed budget at last night's city council meeting. He suggests $380,000 could come from reducing positions in the finance and the city manager's office.
"They are working for us," Gerard said. "I propose cuts in legal, I propose cuts in information technology, I think those are completely reasonable. If we're going to cut firemen, why we can't cut another lawyer, and we did our homework on these types of things.
Gerard also wants 13 of the highest paid employees to take a 10-percent salary cut, exempting the police and fire departments. He said those include the city manager, finance director, city attorney, and the director of the Champaign Public Library. His plan also suggests that the city refinance its more than $40-million pension debt, paying it off at a lower interest rate in 20 years instead of 10.
Gerard contends the pension plan will produce savings of about $11-million in three years. He is running against longtime mayor Jerry Schweighart in April.
(Photo courtesy of Don Gerard)
An Illinois appellate court ruled Wednesday that lawmakers have to start over if they want to raise taxes and legalize video gambling to pay for a $31 billion statewide construction plan.
A unanimous 1st District appellate court tossed out higher taxes on liquor, candy, and items such as toothpaste, along with video-machine gambling in taverns. They said the law making the changes violated the state Constitution's prohibition on bills that deal with more than one subject.
Gov. Pat Quinn, who vowed an immediate appeal to the state Supreme Court, signed the law in July 2009. It increased revenue to fund a long-awaited plan for building highways, bridges, schools and making other infrastructure improvements. Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, who also heads one of the state's largest liquor distributorships, sued Quinn and other state officials over the law just before it took effect in September 2009.
"This lawsuit was always about how the legislature passed this bill and the discriminatory tax on wine and spirits," Julia Sznewajs, a spokeperson for Wirtz Beverage Illinois, wrote in a statement. "The decision affirms that and we are gratified by it."
The items taxed at higher rates by the law won't immediately drop in price while all players wait to see how an appeal proceeds.
The legislation legalized video gambling and raised liquor excise taxes and taxes on candy, some beverages, and grooming products. It also allowed for private management of the Illinois Lottery, required financial reports on capital projects from the governor's office, and even commissioned a University of Illinois study on the effect of lottery ticket purchases on families.
Not all of them had to do with state revenue, the court said.
"The wide range of topics in (the law) cannot be considered to possess a 'natural and logical connection,'" the court opinion read.
It also invalidated several companion pieces of legislation, including the mechanism for funding capital construction projects.
Quinn said he would seek a stay of the decision from the Supreme Court, putting the appellate court's decree on hold until the high court could decide the issue.
"Capital bill projects are putting thousands of people to work in every corner of the state, while supporting local business, improving our infrastructure and increasing energy efficiency," the Democratic governor said in a prepared statement.
Both Democratic Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago and House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, issued statements reiterating their commitment to job growth through state-sponsored construction.
Two East Central Illinois lawmakers predict the legislature will still find a way to bail out the capital plan, should Illinois' Supreme Court knock it down or refuse to hear the case.
Democratic Senator Mike Frerichs said given the importance of what's at stake, he is confident that a bipartisan group of lawmakers, with the necessary legal help will make the changes to see it through.
"We had attorneys involved the first time, but I think we'll probably look a little closer, take the opinions of the appellate court justices in mind or the Supreme Court justices in how they rule," Frerichs said. "We should be able to fix it this year."
Frerichs said it is vital that the state do what it can to improve roads and other infrastructure, and building work at the University of Illinois and other college campuses around the state.
Catlin Republican House member Chad Hays said a number of projects are pending in his district that rely on these funds, including more than $800,000 for upgrades to the David S. Palmer Arena, and funds for an education center at Kennekuk County Park. Hays said some of those dollars have already come through.
"Just last week some funding for some energy efficiency upgrades at the Danville YMCA for example were released," Hays said. "So prior to this ruling by the appellate court, some of that money was actually beginning to flow."
Hays said he has staff reviewing the appellate court's opinion, and agrees quick action on a new plan could be needed to protect projects in his district.
Illinois legislators will be back in Springfield next week.
If the Supreme Court upholds the ruling, lawmakers would have to begin anew to adopt video gambling and the tax increases necessary to pay for construction - presumably breaking legislation up into smaller pieces.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Robyn Zeigler, said in an email that the state will ask the Illinois Supreme Court for an immediate stay of the decision. That will be filed Thursday, Zeigler said.
(Additional reporting from the Associated Press and Illinois Public Radio)
Champaign's City Council has unanimously recommended a series of budget cuts with the condition that the largest ones might be removed from the chopping block after further discussion.
The crowd of about 70 people heard about the city's dismal financial outlook that has already meant $9-million in budget cuts in the last 3 years, and $2-million in the current proposal. Firefighters and other unions say a plan to cut minimum staffing at the west side's station 4 a threat to public safety.
"If finances trumps the safety of the citizens and your firefighters, then we find it ironic that the thousands of residents that live from Southwest Champaign to Northwest Champaign and pay arguably the highest taxes will be receiving a reduced level of fire and medical services," Chuck Sullivan of Champaign Firefighters Local 1260 said. "We strongly urge to reconsider your vote this evening and table the idea of reducing firefighter staffing."
Council member Tom Bruno said he would prefer 27 to 25 firefighters, but said the move makes sense.
"We have to be adults about the problem we face and make a cut somewhere," Bruno said. "I think this is a reasonable cut in a package of reasonable cuts - all of which are painful, but there isn't always an easy solution to life's problems."
Some citizens are also concerned about a proposal to close the front desk of the police station from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Michael Wilmore with AFSCME Council 31 said it means less communication among officers.
"The cuts that you're talking about in the records department and the front desk are going to be eliminating a lot of people that are the centerpiece of information who give information to the officers in the field." Wilmore said. "Real time information on criminal activity and criminal suspects. If you cut them out, the police in the field are not going to have up to date information. The city will be less safe."
Council member Karen Foster said she will approve the change only as a last resort.
"I've sat with the records department at the police department and I know exactly what they're going through every day," she said. "I just cannot fathom having one police officer come and do all those duties. I just cannot see that."
Foster said she voted for the budget reductions only after talk of seeking out new revenue, and refinancing some of the city's pension debt by issuing municipal bonds, an issue the council will discuss again in March. Champaign City manager Steve Carter said that could save the city about a million dollars in the next year.
The city council also backed a voluntary employee buyout plan similar to one enacted last year at the University of Illinois with hopes that will lessen the need for layoffs in areas like police and public works.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed major reforms to Medicaid into Illinois law on Tuesday, calling it a "landmark achievement" as he was flanked by a bipartisan group of state lawmakers who said the changes aim to reduce costs, pay bills sooner and target fraud.
But some health care advocates said they're concerned because the reforms to the program that provides medical care to the poor include requiring half of all patients on Medicaid be on managed care by 2015.
"It is a landmark achievement, I think, for health care in Illinois," Quinn said.
Quinn said the Medicaid reform efforts are one part of his plan to "stabilize our budget," as Illinois works to plug a deficit that is projected to hit $15 billion in the coming year.
The governor s office estimates the changes will save between $624 million to $774 million over five years. The program's annual budget is $7.6 billion, about one-third of the state's general revenue fund budget. In Illinois, Medicaid is administered by the Department of Healthcare and Family Services and includes about 2.8 million people.
Another cost-saving measure would limit income for future enrollees into Illinois' health care program for children, All Kids, to 300 percent of the federal poverty level.
The law emphasizes HMO-style "managed care" and reduces the use of costly institutions for people with physical and mental disabilities. It would require the state to pay Medicaid bills sooner, reducing late-payment penalties. It also would take steps to ensure ineligible people don't sign up for medical care.
Barbara Dunn, executive director of the Community Health Improvement Center in Decatur, said she has doubts and concerns about plans to require 50 percent of patients to be on managed care by 2015. The center also has offices in Champaign and Mattoon and half of the 19,000 patients it serves are on Medicaid.
"It can work for them but I don't see it as a slam dunk," Dunn said. "I think it's going to be very difficult to do."
Gina Guillemette with the Heartland Alliance in Chicago said she is particularly interested to see how the move to managed care affects populations that the group serves, including the homeless and mentally ill.
"How they proceed is really critical," Guillemette said. "I think that attention to what people's needs are and what best practices are in integrated and coordinated care are really going to be important."
Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, said the bill improves the way government delivers services.
"This is providing better health care outcomes at a reduced cost," Steans said. "We are providing the opportunity to move people out of institutions into home and community-based care settings."
Republicans, like state Sen. Dale Righter of Mattoon, said there was cynicism about any success before work started on the legislation. But the changes are necessary, he said.
"This program was on a collision course," Righter said. "It had an unsustainable rate of growth where liabilities were far outstripping the revenues available to pay for it."
Other changes would help ensure that only eligible people enroll in Medicaid. Clients would have to provide additional evidence that they meet income requirements, live in Illinois and, for continuing clients, that they're still eligible.
Jim Duffett, executive director of the Campaign for Better Health Care based in Champaign, said moving patients to Medicaid managed care is a concern.
"We just want to make sure as this process moves forward that there are extra strong consumer protections for people on Medicaid and for the provider community to also be protected," Duffett said.
HFS director Julie Hamos said the state now has a road map to efficient and effective Medicaid.
"This will not be easy," she said. "We are talking about transforming the system.
The Illini Union Bookstore in Champaign recently unveiled a new apparel line from a company pushing to end poverty in Central America.
South Carolina-based Knights Apparel Inc. runs Alta Gracia, a manufacturing plant in the Dominican Republic. The company employs about 120 people at the factory, and pays each of them $2.83/hour, which exceeds the country's prevailing wage of $0.84/hour. In addition to this salary increase, the company has allowed the workers to form a union.
The non-profit group Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) said the company's salary boost is just enough to adequately feed and shelter a family. In a statement, the WRC said it regularly monitors the facility to make sure the building is up to code and workers are treated well.
"Formal monitoring activities - worker interviews, meetings with management, meetings with union leaders, factory inspections, and review of factory records - all take place at least monthly and in most cases weekly," WRC spokeswoman Theresa Haas said. "Less formal communications with workers and managers occur on a daily basis."
President and CEO of Knights Apparel Joe Bozich said the company makes less because its paying higher salaries, but Bozich noted that the Alta Gracia clothes are sold to consumers at prices that are comparable to other well known brands, like Nike and Adidas. Bozich said he believes this is a viable apparel option because of the social value associated with the clothing line.
"There's been a large group of students that have been asking for this," Bozich said. "They have been petitioning for this for a number of years, saying give us a product to buy that meets a higher standards in terms of corporate social responsibility."
Illini Union bookstore manager Brad Bridges began selling the clothes a couple of weeks ago. Bridges said he would consider dropping partnerships with other clothing companies if there is a large demand for the Alta Gracia apparel.
"Human rights are a big issue with a lot of our students, and we want to provide products that come from a fair wage facility," Bridges said. "I'd like for more companies out there to offer an alternative, so we don't have just one product line from one company"
The factory's clothing is currently sold on more than 200 college campuses.
Illinois' highest court agreed Tuesday to take Rahm Emanuel's appeal of a decision that threw him off the ballot for Chicago mayor and ordered election officials not to print any mayoral ballots without Emanuel's name.
State Supreme Court justices agreed to expedite the case, but they gave no specific time frame. They planned to review legal briefs only and would not hold oral arguments.
Emanuel has asked the court to overturn a lower ruling that pulled his name off the ballot because he had not lived in the city for a year. His attorneys called Monday's decision "squarely inconsistent" with previous rulings on the issue.
The moves by the high court bought valuable time for Emanuel. The Chicago Board of Elections had said it would begin printing ballots without his name as early as Tuesday, with the election less than a month away. Absentee ballots were to be sent out within days.
Messages left for election officials were not immediately returned.
"I'm confident in the argument we're making about the fact that I never lost my residency," Emanuel said Tuesday at a campaign stop where he picked up an endorsement from the Teamsters Joint Council.
Emanuel said the order on the ballot printing was "an important first step in ensuring that voters are not disenfranchised and that they ultimately get to choose the next Mayor of Chicago."
In their appeal, Emanuel's attorneys called Monday's ruling "one of the most far-reaching election law rulings" ever issued in Illinois, not only because of its effect on the mayoral race but for "the unprecedented restriction" it puts on future candidates.
His lawyers raise several points, including that the appeals court applied a stricter definition of "residency" than the one used for voters. They say Illinois courts have never required candidates to be physically present in the state to seek office there.
By adopting this new requirement, the court rejected state law allowing people to keep their residence in Illinois even if they are away doing work for the state or federal government, the appeal said.
Emanuel, a former congressman who represented Chicago, was gone while he served as President Barack Obama's chief of staff for nearly two years.
The new standard also sets a "significant limitation on ballot access" that denies voters the right to choose certain candidates, the appeal said.
Just hours after Monday's ruling, the campaign to replace retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley began to look like an actual race.
For months, three of the main candidates struggled for attention while Emanuel outpolled and outraised them, blanketed the airwaves with television ads and gained the endorsement of former President Bill Clinton, who came to town to campaign for Emanuel.
Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, city Clerk Miguel del Valle and former Chicago schools chief Gery Chico suddenly found themselves in the spotlight - and trying to win over Emanuel supporters who suddenly may be up for grabs.
Even as Emanuel vowed to fight the decision, Braun urged voters to join her campaign "with your time, your effort or your money."
Reporters surrounding Chico outside a restaurant asked him if he was a front-runner - something that seemed inconceivable last week when a Chicago Tribune/WGN poll showed him with the support of just 16 percent of voters surveyed compared with a whopping 44 percent for Emanuel. The same poll showed Braun with 21 percent support, and del Valle with 7 percent.
"I'm trying to get every vote I can from everybody in this city," said Chico, who released records last week showing he had just over $2 million at his disposal, about one-fourth of the money available to Emanuel.
In their 2-1 ruling Monday, an appeals court said Emanuel met the requirements to vote in Chicago but not to run for mayor because he had been living in Washington.
Challengers to Emanuel's candidacy argued the Democrat did not qualify because he rented out his Chicago home and moved his family to Washington to work for President Barack Obama for nearly two years. Emanuel - who quit his job and moved back to Chicago in October after Daley announced he would not to seek a seventh term - has said he always intended to return to Chicago and was living in Washington at the president's request.
If he doesn't win the appeal, the race takes on a whole new dynamic. In a city with huge blocs of black, white and Hispanic voters, the Chicago Tribune/WGN poll showed Emanuel leading among all of them, even though his three top rivals are minorities.
Laura Washington, a local political commentator who writes a column for the Chicago Sun-Times, said if Emanuel is out, Chico, who is Hispanic, could be the big winner in terms of fundraising.
"Rahm has the establishment support, the civic leaders, business community, the money class. And Chico is as close to that type of candidate as anyone," Washington said. "They'd take Chico as a second choice, easily."
Braun would be the big winner among black voters, she said. The recent poll showed Emanuel with the support of 40 percent of black voters compared with 39 percent for Braun, even though two other prominent black candidates dropped out of the race to try to unify the black vote.
Del Valle, another Hispanic candidate, said Emanuel's quandary bodes well for the other candidates, regardless of what the court does.
"Now voters see there's an opportunity to look at the field and give candidates either a second look or in some cases a first look," del Valle said. "People are going to pay more attention to the other candidates.
The Illinois Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered election officials not to print any mayoral ballots without Rahm Emanuel's name while the justices consider whether to hear an appeal from the former White House chief of staff.
Emanuel has asked the court to overturn a lower ruling that threw him off the ballot because he had not lived in the city for a year. His attorneys called Monday's decision "squarely inconsistent" with previous rulings on the issue.
The high court's order appeared to buy some time for Emanuel. The Chicago Board of Elections had said it would begin printing ballots without his name as early as Tuesday, with the election less than a month away. Absentee ballots were to be sent out within days.
Messages left for election officials were not immediately returned.
There was also no immediate word on whether the high court would hear Emanuel's appeal or when the justices would decide whether to accept it.
"I'm extending a hand of friendship to all the Chicagoans who have been supporting Mr. Emanuel and all those who haven't made their minds up yet," she said. "Going forward, we pledge to work to create a city great enough to provide opportunity for every family. But we can only do this if we come together."
In their 2-1 ruling Monday overturning a lower court decision, the appellate justices said Emanuel met the requirements to vote in Chicago but not to run for mayor because he had been living in Washington.
Emanuel's lawyers promptly asked the state's highest court to stop the appellate ruling and hear an appeal as soon as possible. Lawyers also asked the court to tell Chicago election officials to keep his name on the ballot if it starts to print them.
Appellate litigation attorney Christopher Keleher said it's likely the court would rule against Emanuel.
"I can tell you from experience that getting a reversal from any Supreme Court is difficult - even more so when you've got a truncated time frame," Keleher said.
But Emanuel said he was forging ahead.
"I have no doubt that we will in the end prevail at this effort. This is just one turn in the road," Emanuel said Monday, adding that the "people of the city of Chicago deserve the right to make the decision on who they want to be their next mayor."
But Braun would be the big winner among black voters, she said. The recent poll showed Emanuel with the support of 40 percent of black voters compared with 39 percent for Braun, even though two other prominent black candidates dropped out of the race to try to unify the black vote.
But 27-year-old Thurman Hammond, who is black, said he never cared for Braun and planned to vote for Emanuel "because he was part of the Obama camp."
If Emanuel is not on the ballot, Hammond said, he'll have to do his "homework" on other candidates.
It is still early in the search for the University of Illinois' next chancellor, but the university community started weighing in on the hiring process during a public forum Monday night.
Many of the students and faculty members who were at the meeting said they want a chancellor who will represent their interests while considering the financial challenges facing the university.
"This university if it's not led well," architecture student Jake Vermillion said. "Could be severely and radically changed in a negative way."
The state owes the U of I more than $400 million. Vermillion said he is concerned about how the economic climate could affect the School of Architecture, especially as the university mulls over department cuts and consolidations.
That is a concern that has not escaped the committee tasked with finding the next chancellor. U of I Physics Professor Doug Beck heads that committee. Beck said whoever is chosen should have a strong academic history and be familiar with the difficult issues confronting public education.
"With the budget decreasing, the person has to understand in some detail what the consequences are and what possible mechanisms there are for maintaining or increasing revenue from various sources," Beck said, noting that the new chancellor would manage a $1.8 billion budget.
Another common issue brought up at the forum was a focus by the next chancellor to strengthen the relationship between the university and nearby communities.
University leaders say they hope to wrap up the process of replacing interim Chancellor Robert Easter before the next academic year. Easter replaced Richard Herman, who stepped down in October 2009 after an admissions scandal. The new chancellor would also hold the title of vice president.