Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 02, 2010

Two Children Die in Broadlands House Fire

An early morning house fire in Broadlands has claimed the lives of two young children.

Firefighters were called to the home on Logan Street just past 2 a.m., and worked at the scene for more than 3 hours. The two-story house was destroyed. The names of the one and two-year olds who died are not being released pending notification of other family members. Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup says an autopsy will be conducted in Bloomington on Friday. County Sheriff's Lieutenant Ed Ogle said the six members of the family were all sleeping in the downstairs living room in an effort to stay warm before being awakened by neighbors. He said the parents were able to get the older children out, but couldn't get back in to save the younger children.

The four other family members were not hurt. Ogle said the home was engulfed in flames by firefighters arrived, and spread quickly.

"We don't know how long it had been burning until prior to somebody noticing it," Ogle said. "That's what we're currently working with the state fire marshal's office on now to try to determine how it started, where it started, and what possibly fed it so fast."

Ogle said the fire likely started in a garage which is attached by a breezeway. Five fire departments fought the blaze, including Broadlands, Longview, Villa Grove, Sidney, and Homer. Water hauled to the scene caused the road to freeze up, which was closed until after 6 a.m., after an IDOT crew could spread salt in that area.

Categories: Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 01, 2010

IL Lawmakers Consider Abolishing the Death Penalty

Legislation to abolish the death penalty will be put on hold until the Senate and House return for the lame-duck session in January.

Former Governor George Ryan suspended executions in the state about a decade ago, and since then no prisoner has been put to death. Randy Steidl is one of 20 people exonerated from death row in Illinois. He was released from prison after having been wrongly convicted of the 1986 murders of newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads of Paris, Il. He spent 17 years in prison, 12 of which were on death row.

"As harsh as death row was, I found that five and a half years of life without parole that I did after death row was far harsher," Steidl said. "Let them wake up every morning and think about the crimes they committed. That's punishment, and you don't risk the possibility of executing an innocent person."

Opponents of abolishing the death penalty in Illinois say the issue is too important to decide during the time left in the legislative veto session. Earlier this week, the Illinois House committee narrowly recommending abolishing the death penalty with a judiciary panel voting 4-3 today to send the abolition legislation to the House floor.

The first person in the United States exonerated from death row because of DNA evidence shared his story Wednesday on the University of Illinois campus as part of a ceremony commemorating a federal grant for DNA testing. Kirk Bloodsworth, a former marine who now lives in Idaho, was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1984 rape and murder of a Maryland girl, but he was later released.

"If it can happen to an honorably discharged marine with no criminal history," Bloodsworth said, referring to his wrongful conviction. "It can happen to anyone in the state of Illinois, and it's going to continue to do so."

A $687,448 federal grant named in Bloodsworth's honor from the U.S. Department of Justice will help the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project (DIIP) clear more wrongfully convicted inmates. The group's director, Larry Golden, said with the grant money, the innocence project will sift through 25 to 30 cases over the next year and a half that could be solved through DNA testing. He also said DIIP will be able to hire a legal director, and recruit law students at Southern Illinois University and the University of Illinois to review each case.

"Every one of these cases is very, very demanding," Golden said. "The most success that could occur with innocence projects like ours is if we could work ourselves out of business and there weren't cases out there that we would have to look at."

But Golden said as long as there is a demand to study cases in which someone was wrongfully convicted of a crime, his organization will continue its investigations. Golden acknowledged that while his group usually does not come in contact with death penalty cases, he said more than half of the nation's exonerated cases deal with people who were on death row.

"Do we as a society want to sentence people to death when we know there's a good possibility that a number of those people are going to be innocent?" he said. "It raises some big questions about whether that's good and/or moral public policy.

Categories: Politics
Tags: politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 01, 2010

Rep. Black Takes to the House Floor for the Last Time

State Representative Bill Black has given his last speech on the floor of the Illinois House.

The Danville Republican was emotional in his final address to colleagues before he retires this month after 24 years, but it was not the fiery emotion that statehouse observers are familiar with, when Black would tackle controversial issues, sometimes screaming and slamming down his microphone.

Black kidded fellow lawmakers, complimented staff members and quoted "To Kill a Mockingbird" in his speech. He also reminisced about lawmakers who died during his tenure, citing a recent Chicago Tribune column that examined mortality.

"I prefer to remember the fun and glorious days of being able to walk beside them, work with them, when the sun was shining so brightly on our faces," Black said, his voice quavering. "God, I love this place and I love all of you. But as in everything there is a time."

Black was the House deputy Republican leader until earlier this year, when he was demoted by Republican leader Tom Cross for voting against his party on a borrowing bill. In his speech, Black saluted Cross and said he understood the demotion, thanking Cross for not taking away some of the privileges of the post.

Categories: Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 01, 2010

Letters to the Future Part of Last Leg of Champaign 150th Celebration

The head of Champaign's 150th Anniversary Celebration said dozens of people of all ages have already sent in their writings on Champaign's past, present or future for the "Letters to the Future" project.

Project Manager LaEisha Meaderds said they are looking for letters to put in a time capsule, to be ready when the capsule is opened 50 years from now, in 2060.

"We've received several letters from just individuals throughout the community," Meaderds said. "We received a stack of letters from Next Generation School, from just a couple of weeks ago, from 7th and 8th graders. And their wit and their insight into what the future would hold are very interesting."

Meaderds said letter-writers should focus on one of three topics --- their personal family ties to Champaign, a description of life in Champaign today, or their hope or dream for Champaign's future.

Letters will be accepted until January 14th, 2011. One hundred and fifty of them will be chosen for display, and then included in the Anniversary time capsule. The capsule will be buried in March, when the year-long 150th Anniversary Celebration comes to a close.

The March wrap up to the Champaign Sesquicentennial will be more low-key than first envisioned. Meaderds said a budget crunch in city government and the generally weak economy mean the concluding celebrations will be smaller than first intended, and plans for installing a commemorative fountain in downtown Champaign have been put on hold.

But Meaderds said they have managed to adjust the 150th Anniversary Celebration to changing economic realities.

"Our planning started before the real downfall began," she explained. "And I think that we've been really, really smart to try and keep our costs as low as possible, and really just spend wisely --- but still at the same time, celebrate our city, celebrate our community and put on a good show."

The 150th Anniversary Celebration started last March with an exhibit on Champaign history, followed by a downtown music festival in July. Meaderds said a youth art competition is part of the Celebration's conclusion this coming March, in addition to the "Letters to the Future" project and the time capsule.

For more information on the Champaign 150th Anniversary Celebration, visit the project's website (www.champaign150.com) or call 217-403-8710.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - December 01, 2010

Civil Union Bill Passes IL Senate, Gov. Quinn Says He Will Sign It

Gay rights advocates celebrated Wednesday as the Illinois Legislature voted to legalize civil unions, although some wondered whether the measure that the governor is expected to sign will make it easier or harder to someday win approval of same-sex marriage.

The state Senate approved the legislation 32-24, sending it to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. It passed despite complaints from some senators that civil unions threaten the sanctity of marriage or increase the cost of doing business in Illinois.

After Quinn signs the measure, gay and lesbian couples will be able to get official recognition from the state and gain many of the rights that accompany marriage - the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner, for instance. Illinois law will continue to limit marriage to one man and woman, and the federal government won't recognize the civil unions at all.

Five states already allow civil unions or their equivalent, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Five other states and Washington, D.C., let gay couples marry outright.

Some supporters of civil unions in Illinois hope they'll be a step toward full marriage.

"The ultimate goal is not to be separate but equal," said Jacob Meister, president of The Civil Rights Agenda, a gay rights organization. Meister said civil unions are a necessary compromise because they will provide important protections for gay couples.

But even advocates acknowledge it's possible that by accepting civil unions now, they may be delaying movement toward being able to marry. The compromise could weaken any arguments that gay people are being treated unfairly by not being allowed to marry.

The sponsors of the civil unions bill said Wednesday they don't plan to push for legalizing same-sex marriages, which have limited support in the Legislature.

"As soon as the governor signs it, it's the law of the state of Illinois and that's what we're going to live with and going to make work," said Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria.

The executive director of a gay community center in Chicago said he welcomes civil unions but worries the legislation may stall ultimate approval of same-sex marriage. Modesto Valle of the Center on Halsted said it will take "tremendous work" to turn civil unions into "a platform to move toward marriage equality" in Illinois.

Courtney Reid, 48, of Chicago said she and her partner of 12 years have decided they won't pursue a civil union, preferring to wait until same-sex marriage is recognized by federal law and homosexual couples get all the tax benefits and other rights available to heterosexual couples.

"It's a stand on principle for us," Reid said.

Supporters presented the civil unions legislation as a matter of basic fairness for all Illinois residents. With civil unions, state law will treat gay and lesbian couples as if they were married. They would inherit property when a partner dies, for instance.

"It's time for us to look history in the eye and not flinch," said Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, D-Evanston.

Opponents argued it moves Illinois closer to legalizing same-sex marriages. They said civil unions are basically marriage by another name and that they could give the courts a reason to step in and order Illinois to allow full marriage to everyone.

Some senators also criticized the time being spent on civil unions at a time when the state faces a massive budget crisis.

"Here we are, forced to debate an issue that may be political payback to a small but very politically powerful special interest group," said Sen. Chris Lauzen, R-Aurora. He called gay sexual activities dangerous and questioned whether the state has a role in regulating relationships that don't produce children.

The Illinois Family Institute accused legislators of failing to examine the legislation clearly.

"Proponents engaged in embarrassing and maudlin displays of sentimentality intended to emotionally manipulate rather than intellectually persuade their colleagues," said executive director David E. Smith.

Cardinal Francis George and other Catholic leaders fought civil unions vigorously. Conservative groups also lobbied to block the measure. They argued it could hurt religious institutions.

The measure wouldn't require churches to recognize civil unions or perform any kind of ceremony, opponents acknowledge, but critics fear it would lead to other requirements, such as including same-sex couples in adoption programs run by religious groups or granting benefits to employees' partners.

Some religious leaders welcomed the legislation. In Chicago, Rabbi Larry Edwards said he's looking forward to planning celebrations for couples in his Jewish congregation who may decide to form civil unions under Illinois law.

"To those who say it's a slippery slope and eventually will lead to marriage, I say, 'I hope so,'" said Edwards of Or Chadash synagogue. "I would like to be on a slippery slope that slides in the direction of justice."

The Rev. Vernice Thorn, associate pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago said she considers the vote a hopeful sign. "Same-sex legalized marriage is going to happen. It's just a matter of when.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 01, 2010

Flash Economic Index Slowly Rises Again, But Tax Amnesty May Cloud Numbers

Illinois' economy keeps creeping slowly toward recovery according to a monthly gauge of economic performance, but the economist who calculates the University of Illinois Flash Index says an amnesty program for late taxpayers in the state may have distorted the index in November.

Fred Giertz says he made an adjustment in the index, placing it at 94.2 for the month. That's still well below the 100-level that signifies economic growth, but it's slightly higher than October's index, marking the seven straight month of similar increases.

The Flash Index is based on state tax proceeds in a given month. Giertz says if he had not adjusted the index to account for the tax amnesty program, it would have been about five points higher.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 01, 2010

State Board of Education Hears Pleas from Local Educators

Area educators have issued urgent appeals for the state to maintain funding in areas ranging from transportation to early childhood education.

Champaign was the site for the last of the State Board of Education's six public hearings on the Fiscal 2012 budget. Champaign Unit 4 Chief Financial Officer Gene Logas testified that cuts to the district's early childhood program have meant 40 less students, with a waiting list of 100. He pleaded with the state board and legislature to increase funding in that area. "And the only winner is the state prison system when we don't get our children off to the best start that's possible," said Logas. "It's just such a shame to waste scare resources building prisons when we could be using that money on our youngest children. This is a just a total waste, a total lack of priorities. We should all be ashamed of ourselves." Logas also says maintaining court-mandated special education remains a very expensive proposition for many districts.

Cris Vowels is the principal at Urbana's Washington Early Childhood School. She says every year, the amount of the school's grant is questionable, and how many staff members can be re-hired. She says 70-percent of them were given Reduction in Force notices last spring.

"And so come August when I found out that we were indeed going to be fully funded, I was calling people on Friday asking them to come back to work on Monday," said Vowels. "Of course, I lost key staff members. Most particularly, my bilingual staff members who are in high demand around the state." Vowels suggests the state support a multi-year grant program for early childhood programs.

Former Champaign School Board member Margie Skirvin says the uncertainty of state payments has been the biggest problem among all districts. Representing the Illinois PTA, she says the group is backing a House bill that would shift the burden of funding education from property taxes to income taxes. Deb Foertsch, Illinois Federation of Teachers Vice President and a teacher at Champaign's Carrie Busey Elementary, says an easing of tax cap restrictions in affected districts could help save programs like bilingual and gifted education. And Jessica Schad, a second year teacher at Urbana Middle School, says she wouldn't have survived in her job if it weren't for a grant-funded mentoring program at District 116.

James Bauman, chair of the ISBE's finance committee, says most funding remains committed to general state aid, with about a billion dollars left for grant funded programs, include early childhood education. He says comments at Tuesday's Champaign hearing reflect those of others held around the state, and will help guide the State Board when it recommends an education budget to lawmakers in January.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - December 01, 2010

Civil Union Bill Wins House Approval

The Illinois House approved legislation Tuesday night that would position Illinois to become the sixth state to allow gay couples to enter civil unions.

An emotionally charged Illinois House narrowly approved the measure Tuesday night. Civil unions are not marriage, but under the proposal, same sex and heterosexual couples who enter one would receive many of the benefits - including hospital visitation and the power of attorney.

State Representative Deborah Mell (D-Chicago) said those are rights she is now denied because Illinois does not legally recognize her relationship with her partner.

"After six years of building a life together, committing our lives to each other," Mell said. "We have a strong faith in God and in family. And after all that we are still not considered family. And I assure you, we are a family. And we deserve the same rights that you enjoy."

Larry McKeon became Illinois' first openly gay legislator when he was elected to the Illinois House in 1996. He is not around to see his successor, Democratic Representative Greg Harris, usher through the legalization of civil unions. McKeon died a couple years ago from a sudden stroke, but his legacy played a role in the measure's passage ... as Harris recounted a tale of how McKeon tried to visit his longtime partner in intensive care.

"The hospital turned Larry away," Harris said. "They said he did not have the proper documentation with him. They did not consider him next of kin. He would have to go home. He would have to go home and find the documents."

By the time McKeon returned with paperwork proving his status, Harris said, McKeon had missed his partner's passing by mere minutes.

"Should anyone have to be absent from the side of the person they most love in life because they don't have access to the proper paperwork at the right time," he said. "Should this not be a right that every person in Illinois be granted?"

If the civil unions measure becomes law ... it will no longer be an issue. Harris lists the benefits it would trigger: "To participate in health care decision-makings, it would allow them to share a nursing home room, it would allow them to be the first in line to make a disposition about their partners' remains when he or she dies, and it would allow them rights in probate."

Harris, who is openly gay, noted that it is not just for same sex couples. It applies to heterosexual ones too. He said many elderly couples don't want to take on a spouse late in life because a new marriage would cut into their social security payouts.

Harris estimated that it is these heterosexual senior citizens who will most take advantage of civil unions. Entering one will be similar to getting married - couples would pay a county clerk for a license. Dissolving the partnership would require a legal proceeding similar to a divorce. There are differences. Only married people can get perks like filing joint income tax returns. Illinois law does, and still would, define marriage expressly as between a man and a woman.

However, critics like David Reis, a Republican representing the Effingham area ... say with approval of civil unions, Illinois is on a direct path to gay marriage. He warned its passage will lead to equal rights lawsuits that could result in a court order requiring Illinois let same sex couples marry.

"And it won't take long for your people back home to know that your vote tonight, while for civil unions and individual rights and hospital visitations, was really a vote for same sex marriage in Illinois," Reis said. "I don't think we're ready for this, I don't think the people of Illinois want this just yet."

Another Republican, Ron Stephens of Greenville, said allowing civil unions may contribute to the crumbling of America's future.

"If you look at the sociological history of a society that has failed, what are some of the commonalities," Greenville asked. "One of those is that open homosexuality becomes accepted in the higher society. Whether it's in Greek times, the Romans or others. And here we are at the precipice again."

Despite advocates' claims to the contrary, critics also say extending insurance and pension benefits to partners will hurt government and businesses' bottom lines. Opponents had cranked up their protest in advance of the debate with such arguments. Prominent Catholics, like the head of the Chicago Archdiocese, Cardinal Francis George, repeatedly called legislators, trying to sway them to vote no. Nonetheless, with a vote of 61 to 52 a solitary vote over the required amount it passed.

While Democrats were the main backers, handful of Republicans including Lake County's Mark Beaubien also lent their support.

"I don't think this is a partisan issue," Beaubien said. "I respect everybody's opinion on this and their believes. My only statement is there comes a time. And for those of you that are on the fence. Now is the time to support this bill."

Charlie Beall was in the House gallery watching it all happen.

"I was the first kid in my school to actually come out of the closet," he said.

The Senate is poised to take up the proposal Wednesday and its passage is expected. As Governor Quinn is an outspoken backer, it's likely to become law.

Beall is now a 19-year old student at Heartland Community College in Normal, but looks back at when he was 16 years old, a sophomore in high school. Just weeks after the football season ended, he first told his friends and family he was gay.

"Well, actually I was going to see my first boyfriend and I was on a date with him - not him," Beall explained. "I lied to my parents because I didn't want them to know."

After his parents discovered he had faked an alibi, Beall said he broke down, and began to hear hear taunts of "fagot" or "queer" when he walked down his high school's hallways. He said with the House's approval of civil unions, he is hopeful that mentality will not continue much longer.

"just the fact that I have almost the same rights as everyone else now," he said. "It changes a lot. And hopefully when I'm having children, my kids won't even know what that was like. To be repressed in a way."

Despite Beall's positive take is that some gay rights activists say they will not be satisfied until they get all of the rights afforded to heterosexuals, namely the right to marry. They say by supporting civil unions, they are settling for inequality.

The Senate's poised to take up the proposal Wednesday, and it's expected to win approval there as well. As Governor Quinn is an outspoken supporter, it's likely to become law. Quinn said it is an important civil rights issue, and called passing it the "right thing to do.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - November 30, 2010

Plans for Taylorville Power Plant Advance in the General Assembly

Lured by the promise of jobs and a boost for the state's coal industry, the Illinois House agreed to a plan that could pave the way for a controversial central Illinois power plant.

Omaha based Tenaska Corporation wants to build a coal fired power plant in Taylorville. It would use Illinois coal, which has fallen out of favor because of its high sulfur content. Emissions would be captured and stored underground.

It has taken years to get the proposal this far. Opponents are concerned about the legislation's requirement that utilities purchase power from the plant, which are expected to lead to higher electric rates over several decades. House sponsor Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) said the cost factor was a sticking point.

"I would say that is part of the cost trade off for improving the overall economy," Mautino said.

Residential rates would be capped at a two-percent increase, but businesses and governmental bodies could pay more. Mautino admits it has been difficult convincing colleagues who represent other areas that it is a good deal for them.

"For example, when I buy a gallon of gas or fill my tank in Spring Valley, part of that money goes to fund the CTA which already gets 97-percent of all mass transit money to fund a bus I will never ride on," he said "Yet that is one of the costs built in to having an overall statewide system."

Mautino said a boost for Illinois coal will benefit the entire state. The plan still needs approval from Senators and the Governor to become law.

Categories: Energy, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - November 30, 2010

Douglas County Recount Wraps Up in Sheriff’s Race

A discovery recount performed last week in the Douglas County sheriff's race found that the margin of victory for incumbent Charlie McGrew stayed the same over his opponent, Fred Galey.

Douglas County clerk Jim Ingram said this review of the ballots was not an official recount since it does not change the final vote tabulation. If there is sufficient evidence to show ballot error, then the petitioner could file a petition in circuit court for a full recount.

After the November 2 election, Galey made a request for the county's first-ever discovery recount where about a quarter of the local precincts were reviewed for voting errors. Ingram said of the four precincts studied, only two were found to be off by one ballot.

"In one precinct the Sheriff received an additional vote, and in another precinct the petitioner received an extra vote," Ingram said. "That means nothing. It doesn't change any totals."

Ingram said the ballot review process went on without any problems.

Since Galey initiated the recount, he is required to pay a $10 fee for each of the four precincts counted. But Ingram pointed out that the county has to pick up an even larger tab charged by Government Business Systems, the vendor of the voting machines.

"Even though it cost the petitioner himself $10 per precinct, it costs the county an excess of ten times that amount to perform the task," he said.

McGrew defeated Galey by less than 40 votes after the absentee ballots were counted. Calls to Galey for comment were not immediately returned. McGrew's new term as sheriff begins Wednesday, December 1 at 9am.

Categories: Government, Politics

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