Illinois Public Media News
Leaders of Illinois' public universities are making a unified appeal for the money the state government owes them.
Illinois has been trying to deal with a deep budget deficit by putting off payments to creditors - including nearly three quarters of a billion dollars to higher education.
University of Illinois interim president Stan Ikenberry says his institution is 431 million dollars in debt because of the lack of payments, and leaders owe it to the people of Illinois to find a solution. He says that solution will include painful budget cuts.
"And it's going to require revenue increases. Very unpleasant, very difficult for any public leader lawmakers to think about," Ikenberry said. "But I think both cuts in expenditure and revenue increases will be essential before any solution can be brought about. The third essential element will be some strong leadership and bipartisan cooperation."
Ikenberry says the financial crisis is not a total surprise because the state's fiscal situation has been in decline for nearly eight years, but he's surprised that's it's gotten as bad as it has.
Several other university leaders joined Ikenberry at a Chicago press conference to call for the state money to be released.
The Champaign School Board looked at additional options Monday night, as it considered making $2.2 billion in budget cuts. But some of the proposals unveiled two weeks ago are already drawing fire.
Proposals to lay off two elementary school band and strings teachers --- and perhaps cut the 4th grade program entirely --- brought a group of music supporters to the meeting. They included Edison Middle School 7th grader William Smith, who says his school's band is as strong as it is, because many members started their band practice in elementary school.
"I'm a tuba player, and Band is one of the favorite things I do", Smith told the school board. "And I can guarantee you that I wouldn't be in it today, if it wasn't for the Fifth Grade (band) program."
School Board President Dave Tomlinson says he received 15-hundred emails defending the elementary school band and strings program, and he did not support making any cuts.
"Dave Tomlinson's not going to vote for a cut in Band and Strings", Tomlinson told reporters. "I will support a reorganization, because I think there's some areas to do that in."
In particular, Tomlinson pointed to some elementary schools in the district, where Band or Strings enrollment was in the low single digits. He said instruction for students at those schools might be combined together.
Unit Four Finance Director Gene Logas presented nearly $2-million in additional proposed budget cuts and revenue enhancements last night --- giving the school board more options to choose from, on top of the $2.2 billion proposed two weeks ago. The new proposals include additional administrative cuts, and the elimination next year of an annual professional conference for school board members.
A public meeting on the proposed Unit Four budget cuts is set for Thursday, February 18th at a site to be announced --- Tomlinson says it will probably be held at a school gymnasium, in order to accommodate a large crowd.. The Unit Four School Board's final vote on budget cuts is set for March 8th.
In other action, the school board approved a $228,000 restructuring plan for Centennial High School. The school will get a new principal, and enact several reforms in an effort to meet learning standards under No Child Left Behind. Board members initially rejected the plan on a 4 to 3 vote. It finally passed 5 to 2, after the cost of the program was capped at $200,000. Board members said it wasn't right to spend so much on the restructuring plan --- including money for new staff positions --- when money was being cut elsewhere due to a lack of funds.
Peoria-based Caterpillar has joined the growing list of supporters of the FutureGen coal-burning power plant planned for Mattoon.
And the heavy equipment maker is the first member of the FutureGen Alliance not tied directly with energy production. The alliance now has 11 members committed to providing financial resources to get FutureGen off the ground, they include Chicago-based utility giant Exelon, and St. Louis-based coal company Peabody Energy. Monday's announcement drew praise from officials like Governor Pat Quinn and Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson. Coles Together Vice President Anthony Pleasant admits Caterpillar's backing may appear a bit unusual at the outset. "The rest are power generation companies, and clearly that's not what Cat does." says Pleasant. "But Cat's always been environmentally friendly. Just days ago, their headquarters in Peoria was LEED certified. They reduced energy by 40%, and water usage by 50%. So it's something they clearly invest in." In a release from the company, a Caterpillar official says the company has long been committed to technologies and policies that slow, stop, and reverse the growth of Greenhouse gas emissions.
Pleasant notes that Caterpillar also makes mining equipment. He says this move is a good sign that other companies not related to energy production will support FutureGen, and calm federal officials' concerns over cost. The price tag of the facility now stands at about 1-point-8 billion dollars, with the Department of Energy expected to handle just over a billion of that. Two years ago, the Bush Administration pulled the plug on the project due to cost overruns. A DOE announcement on whether FutureGen will be built could come later this month.
The Democratic nominee for Illinois lieutenant governor Scott Lee Cohen says he is dropping out of the race.
This follows reports of Cohen's troubled past, including steroid abuse and allegations of domestic violence.
Since Cohen's surprise victory last Tuesday, he's faced near constant pressure from the media and Democratic bigwigs.
On Friday he met with House Speaker Michael Madigan, and Sunday night Cohen called it quits.
His spot on the ballot will now be filled by the Democratic State Central Committee, led by Speaker Madigan.
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown says the committee could meet in the middle of next month, as originally planned, or earlier. "We'll look at all the alternatives, and find the best candidate that can help Democrats win from top-to-bottom comes November," Brown said.
The speaker previously supported the candidacy of state Representative Art Turner of Chicago.
But the four other Democrats who ran for lieutenant governor - State Representative Mike Boland, union electrician Thomas Castillo, and Senators Rickey Hendon and Terry Link -- all insist they'd be the strongest candidate for the party come November.
State Sen. Bill Brady says the delay in knowing for sure whether he's won the Republican nomination for Illinois governor hurts but isn't devastating.
Brady said Friday at a news conference in Chicago that he'd rather be in "full campaign mode'' than waiting for final results in the close race. Brady says he's not calling on his opponent, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, to concede and he understands what Dillard is going through.
Brady says he'll prevail when all the absentee and provisional votes are tallied. Brady was asked whether both candidates could agree to rule out a re-count once the final vote is certified. He said he didn't know.
Dillard said earlier Friday the primary isn't over until every vote is counted and it's still too early to declare a winner.
The union that represents a small group of University of Illinois employees is filing an unfair labor practice complaint over the university's furlough policy.
The chief negotiator for the Visiting Academic Professionals accuses administrators of ignoring the contract with the 300 employees when they began requiring many workers to take four unpaid days off this semester.
Alan Bilansky says the union is asking the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board to force the U of I to reverse the change it made to employee appointments - that change allows the furloughs to take place. But Bilansky says the state board likely won't act on the complaint any time soon, so VAPs will likely have to take unpaid days off this spring.
"We have to tell people, 'yes, you have to take your furlough days if your manager tells you too'", says Bilansky. "But yes, we are hoping to make everyone whole, once this is all resolved."
Bilansky says negotiators for the VAP and the U of I discussed the possibility of furloughs in ongoing contract talks, but nothing was agreed to.
U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler says the university is able to require furloughs from VAPs because the current labor contract does not specifically address the issue.
The mother of a man who opened fire at a Macomb Farm King store says her son was depressed, but never planned to hurt anyone.
Police identified Wednesday's gunman as 19-year-old Jonathan Labbe (luh-BAY') of Tennessee, Ill., and said he died of a self-inflicted bullet wound. No one else was injured.
Labbe's mother, Kathleen Clauson, said Thursday her son was upset, so she left work early to find him. It led her to the standoff. Clauson said she had to wait in the store's parking lot because police said it was too dangerous to allow her inside.
Clauson told Peoria station WEEK-TV, in her words, "He's just lost and I couldn't reach him enough, fast enough. I drove over there not knowing where he would be and I begged the police to let me in. I begged them.
Plans for extending Olympian Drive through Urbana to U-S Route 45 could take on more solid form this spring --- with the signing of an intergovernmental agreement.
The agreement would commit Champaign County and the cities of Champaign and Urbana to working together on the multi-year project. Plans call for extending Olympian Drive over the Canadian National tracks, and through the north end of Urbana to U-S Route 45.
Champaign County Board members heard details of the project Thursday night from County Engineer Jeff Blue. He says state funding for the project has been secured.
"A majority of that money is (for building) the overpass of the railroad", says Blue. " We have five million dollars from the Capital Bill. And no, the money can't be used to build Monticello Road or or any other road. has to be used on the Olympian Drive project."
Much of the cost would be paid for with money from the federal government ---- money which local officials are still lobbying for. But Blue said Champaign County won't have money for the project until about 2013, because its available motor fuel tax dollars are currently funding other projects.
Thursday night's county board discussion did not require any action. But board members heard plenty of opinions.
Critics of the Olympian Drive extension told the board that the project would pave over valuable farmland, encourage urban sprawl --- or may be under-utilized because it's not really needed. Champaign County Board member Stan James noted that last argument. He said past projections of urban growth in Champaign County may have been over optimistic.
"We're looking at this road, and if it was desperately needed and the growth was for certain, that's something that should be taken into account" says James. "But we are seeing buildings, factories, the scope of our industrial, auto plants and everything changing. What type of growth we're talking about, I don't know."
But Olympian Drive's supporters told the county board that extending the road would meet a growing need for an east-west artery between I-57 and U-S Route 45. County Board member Steve Beckett said the county agreed to the project years ago in its Fringe Road Agreement with Champaign and Urbana.
"Why don't we do what we gave our word that we're going to do", said Beckett. "Just because Urbana stalled, doesn't mean that we should stall. We enetered into an agreement as a body politic. We ought to continue with our agreement. We ought to fund this project, in the way that Jeff has directed us to. And we ought to move forward."
Beckett referred to the city of Urbana's decision ten years ago to back out of the Olympian Drive project , while Champaign went ahead with its portion of the road. Now Urbana is back on board, and Mayor Laurel Prussing spoke in the project's favor at Thursday night's county board meeting.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn says he expects Scott Lee Cohen ultimately will have to step down as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor over charges that he once abused his girlfriend.
Quinn called Thursday for Cohen to answer all questions about his 2005 arrest for domestic battery -- Cohen denies harming his former girlfriend. But Quinn says he thinks Cohen will end up dropping out of the race.
Illinois voters choose the nominees for governor and lieutenant governor separately. Quinn and Cohen did not campaign together, but now they make up the Democratic ticket.
Quinn says he learned of the allegations after Tuesday's primary election.
Cohen was charged with holding a knife to the woman's throat and pushing her head against a wall. Cohen says the couple did argue but that he never laid a hand on her. Charges were dropped after the girlfriend missed a court date.
The Chicago Tribune reports police records also show the girlfriend had been arrested for prostitution. Cohen says he did not know that at the time.
Cohen is a pawnbroker and owner of a cleaning-supply business with no political experience.
Groups representing Illinois hospitals and doctors are disappointed by an Illinois Supreme Court ruling involving caps on some medical malpractice lawsuit awards, but trial lawyers are hailing the decision.
A divided court ruled Thursday that limiting non-economic damages in malpractice cases violates the principle of separation of powers in the state's Constitution. The court says limits the Legislature adopted in 2005 would infringe on the judicial branch's power. In a partial dissent, Justice Lloyd Karmeier says it's the court that is violating separation of powers by second-guessing the Legislature's attempts to reduce health care costs.
Illinois State Medical Society President James Milam says he fears doctors in high-risk specialties will leave the state if their medical liability insurance rates go up as a result of the ruling.
Maryjane Wurth is president of the Illinois Hospital Association. She says the court's decision highlights the need for President Barack Obama and Congress to embrace meaningful medical liability reform as part of health care legislation.
Illinois Trial Lawyers Association President Peter Flowers applauds the decision and says it's time to focus on meaningful insurance reform.
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