Illinois Public Media News
Efforts to reform the way Illinois redraws its legislative districts every ten years appear to have run out of steam. A proposed constitutional amendment backed by Democrats fell two votes short of passage in the Illinois House Thursday.
And organizers of a petition drive to get another proposal on the ballot say they've failed to collect enough signatures. Despite their differences, Both proposals actually featured the same key method to fix the state's redistricting process. Illinois Public Media's Jim Meadows reports.
The Illinois Commerce Commission has rejected most of a request from Ameren to raise electricity and natural gas rates.
Ameren had sought an additional $162 million from customers. On Thursday, the ICC approved $5 million of that increase. The utility company released a statement, saying the decision may hinder Ameren's ability to provide the service customers expect. Spokesman Leigh Morris says the company will spend a few days reviewing the decision to decide its next steps... including whether to appeal. The Citizen Utility Board's Jim Chilsen praised the decision. "Ameren was asking for way too much," said Chilsen. "And the rate hike that it got will give the company all the funds it needs to provide safe, reliable service and to return a fair profit to stockholders."
ICC spokeswoman Beth Bosch says the cuts of more than 95-percent came from various line items on the delivery side of Ameren's power. "Ranging from incentive compensation to benefits, working cash, what kinds of projects they consider useful the rates could be collected on, operations and maintenance," said Bosch. She says the ICC also brought down the rate hike from what an administrative law judge had requested. The decision is also based on reviews from several parties, including local governments, the Attorney General, and AARP. Bosch says all of Ameren's gas rates should go down as a result of the decision, with electric rate hikes of 10-percent or less for Ameren IP, CILCO, and CIPS customers.
In the controversy over a new marquee sign for the Virginia Theater, the Champaign Park board has learned that there's little difference in cost between rebuilding the current neon marquee and constructing a replica of the original marquee from the 1920s.
In fact, a company specializing in theater marquees told the park district that rebuilding the yellow, neon, triangular and badly deteriorated Virginia marquee could cost 140 to 160 thousand dollars. Meanwhile, bids for building a replica of the original, white, rectangular marquee range from 158 to 270-thousand dollars.
Park District Marketing Director Laura Auteberry says that at their May meeting, park commissioners want to see more detailed, color renderings of the original marquee replica, so they can better compare it next month with the current marquee that has attracted some vocal defenders.
"Because a lot of the comments we've received from the community is they like the neon, they like the color, that that really stands out when people are going by", says Auteberry. "So we're going to provide that in the way of a rendering, so it gives people a better vision --- between the two --- of which would look better on the building."
At a study session Wednesday , four of the five park commissioners said they personally prefer the original marquee from the 20s, but don't want to go against popular opinion if it truly favors the current marquee. Work on the marquee would be part of the renovation of the Virginia Theater lobby, scheduled for June through November.
Saturday's Illinois Marathon in Champaign-Urbana could alter the schedule for some shoppers at this season's first Market at the Square.
The Market will start its 31st season this weekend at Illinois and Vine Streets in Urbana. Vine is also one of those streets that will see more than 10,000 runners pass through from the west, as the marathon and half-marathon races get underway at 7:30. Starting their route at the U of I by going up 1st Street, runners will be entering Urbana on Green Street, north on Race, and east on Main Street. Lieutenant Kent Jepsen is the special events coordinator with Urbana Police. He expects the intersection of Main and Vine Streets to re-open around 9, but says there will be some gaps. "Prior to that, of course the runners will have lightened up," said Jepsen. "You'll be at the back of the pack of the 9-to-10,000 runners, so there will be pusling across Main and Vine as runners allow. In other words, when there's light runners and gaps in between them, the officer and volunteers will allow traffic to pulse through southbound." Market at the Square shoppers who live just south of that intersection won't be impacted. The runners will continue east on Main Street and south down Cottage Grove.
A total of 14,200 runners are now registered for the 2nd annual Illinois Marathon. Full details are available on line at the Illinois Marathon website. Event Co-director Mike Lindemann says motorists in Champaign won't see the same impact, with some streets limited to one lane. "I don't want to say there won't be delays in Champaign, there will be." said Lindemann. "But if people are patient, or if they look at that web site, there's a beltway map to get around the course. And to get around it, obviously you have to drive a few miles out of the way, but it might be better than waiting 15 or 20 minutes at a corner to get across the street." Lindeman says the event has now recruited the volunteers necessary for Saturday's events. Six countries and 46 states are represented in the marathon, half-marathon, and 5K race.
A yearly ranking of cities and their air pollution problems lists Champaign-Urbana as relatively problem-free.
The area is listed as one of 25 cleanest when it comes to short-term pollution from particulate matter. The report covers the years 2006 through 2008 and compares metropolitan areas across the country.
Katie Lorenz is with the American Lung Association, which commissioned the study - she says Champaign-Urbana also fared well when it comes to ozone pollution over those three years.
"In Champaign there was one ozone day in the orange category, which means unhealthy levels of pollution for sensitive groups," Lorenz said. "And for that reading w gave them a B, which is actually pretty good comparatively across the state."
In comparison, McLean County had five days with orange-level ozone pollution two years ago, and Cook County had 25.
Lorenz says some long-term trends may be to credit for the improvement. "One of the reasons why we think that the quality has been better is due to reductions in emissions from coal-fired power plants. (Also,) transition to cleaner diesel fuels and engines and really the steps that individuals are taking every day to make sure the quality of our air is improved."
Still the Lung Association's "State of the Air" study found that the St. Louis and Indianapolis areas suffer significant year-round pollution despite year-by-year improvements.
An Illinois House committee advanced a Democrat-backed plan Tuesday to change the legislative redistricting process. It could be called for a floor vote as soon as Wednesday. But Republicans made a last ditch attempt to keep their own proposal alive:
The big difference between the two sides is that Democrats want lawmakers to have a shot at deciding their own districts, before passing deadlocked cases over to a "special master".. Their plan also calls for statewide hearings and separate maps for both chambers. Republicans say a panel of non-lawmakers should be given the task of mapping out legislative districts.
"If we say no, we don't believe this process is right and we're going to stick to our guns that the legislature should not be part of this", says GOP Rep. Jim Durkin of Western Springs.
Since Republicans are in the minority at the state capitol... their plan has been blocked. But even though Democrats have the edge in the House... their measure needs at least one Republican to come on board for it to pass.
The Republican effort also has the backing of the League of Women Voters. That group's effort to circumvent the legislature by collecting voter signatures is coming up short.
Meanwhile, debate over the two plans led to flaring tempers at a hearing of the House Civil Law Committee on Tuesday.
Chris Butler, an African American volunteer with the League of Women Voters, questioned what the Democrats' version does to help elect minorities.
"I take strong offense to this caucus...parading as great defenders of minority rights", said Butler.
To which Chicago Democratic Senator Kwame Raoul, who's also African American, took offense.
"If you're going to say that you're African American and you're fighting for African American rights and all of this", responded Raoul, "you know, look at the language and answer the question honestly. You know, don't bring tokens out here to defend something that is inadequate. It's insulting."
IIllinois' current redistricting process typically gives one party a huge political advantage for the next decade.
Champaign's CommUnity Matters program is preparing for a third year of activities for at-risk youth. The program brings private and public agencies together to offer afterschool programs and summer day camps for younger students... and career-building programs for high school students. The program has targeted the Garden Hills neighborhood but is set to expand this year.
Unit Four Assistant Superintendent Dr. Michael McFarland says he measures CommUnity Matter's success by the children involved in its program - such as the Operation Hope program for high school s students:
"If you look at the results, last year we had 18 seniors, and they all are currently still in college, doing well", says McFarland. "We have seven seniors this year. And we feel really positive about the fact that when kids leave our schools, they'll have more than a diploma. They'll have choices and opportunities."
Among the high schools students in Operation Hope is Champaign Central sophomore Tuyrin Griffin,
"Before I got into it", says Griffin, "my grades were real bad. And then when I got into it, it helped me out a lot, and I improved a lot. And it made me want to do better. And it's teaching me more about colleges and stuff, and it's letting me know about stuff that I didn't know before."
Griffin and other Operation Hope members addressed the Champaign City Council Tuesday night, as they reviewed plans for expanding CommUnity Matters. The city, the Champaign Park District, and the Unit Four school district work together on the program, along with local agencies such as the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club. Council member Deb Feinen says the willingness to collaborate is a key strength.
"Doing that probably isn't always easy", says Feinen. "It's probably easier to sort of just do it yourself, and nor share it out. But sharing it out is the piece that helps to make it so successful"
Two more partners will be joining CommUnity Matters...with the Parkland College for Kids program this summer and the Champaign County YMCA in 2011. The program also will be expanding into the northeast Champaign neighborhoods of Douglass Park, Beardsley Park, and Bristol Park.
Champaign City Council unanimously endorsed the expansion at its Tuesday night study session. A final council vote is expected in mid-June.
Illinois' top education official says schools should expect to receive all they state funding they've been promised for this year - but they shouldn't expect to get it before the end of the school year.
State school superintendent Christopher Koch says it would take a change in state law for the state to withhold funds permanently. But districts - and other state agencies and contractors -- have been waiting for the funding for months, and the statewide backlog has surpassed six billion dollars.
Koch says he can't tell schools when they can expect to see the money.
"You're not going to see it in this fiscal year", says Koch, "and even if the fiscal year's extended, we're not sure when money will be delivered. General state aid payments have been timely. Everything else has been delayed. Another large payment that school districts are awaiting are the reimbursements for transportation, special education costs. Those are in a category called Mandated Categoricals. Those are still pending --- one from December and one from April."
Koch says with the delays stretching back more than a year, it's getting increasingly tougher for school districts to plan their budgets several years down the line.
Koch was in Urbana Monday to salute eight Champaign County schools named to the Illinois Honor Roll - one of them, Urbana's Wiley School, has been discussed as a potential target for closing.
The Parkland College facility on Champaign's Mattis Avenue has been reopened after the Illinois Worknet Center inside the building received what Parkland called a "credible bomb threat."
The Mattis building had been evacuated after the threat, which a Parkland spokeswoman says was called in around 8:30 this morning. The University of Illinois' Emergency Ordinance Disposal team was called out to inspect the building but found nothing.. Parkland now says classes will resume at the Mattis building at 1:00 pm, with people now being allowed to return to their offices. The main Parkland College campus was not affected.
U of I students at a sometimes contentious town-hall-style meeting on the Urbana campus Monday night accused administrators of not doing enough to bring the school through the current financial crisis.
Students from the GEO --- the union representing grad students on campus --- and the Undergraduate Graduate Alliance told administrators at the meeting they weren't doing enough to lobby lawmakers to pass an income tax hike to fund higher education.
Administrators, including Associate Provost for Budget and Resource Planning Michael Andrechak, said the administration was fighting hard for the U of I's survival --- but the state's fiscal problems are a big challenge.
"The state's economic situation is absolutely catastrophic", said Andrechak. "A tax increase is needed. It's very unlikely that one will occur prior to the election."
GEO incoming co-president Stephanie Sewall says the university has to increase the pressure on lawmakers. She says an expected tuition hike will prevent more students from attending the U of I.
"I wasn't convinced that fundamentally, preserving accessibility to public education is reflected in the decisions that are being made", said Sewall. "And more work has to be done on that."
Students at the meeting talked about the likelihood of 10 to 20 percent tuition hikes. But U of I interim president Stanley Ikenberry said earlier this month he believes the next tuition increase will be under 10 percent.
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