Illinois Public Media News
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Media and Illinois Public Radio)
Prominent Republicans say they are filing a federal lawsuit to block Illinois' new Democrat-drawn congressional map.
The lawsuit they are filing on Wednesday claims the new map is "outrageous partisan gerrymander" designed to eliminate five Republicans in next year's election.
The lawsuit also makes the case that Latino voting power is being diluted. The map, it claims, packs "an excessive super-majority of Latino voters" into Congressman Luis Gutierrez's district.
Filing the lawsuit is the Committee for a Fair and Balanced Map, which includes such prominent Republicans such as former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Also named as plaintiffs are Illinois' five freshman Republicans who voters sent to Washington in the 2010 election.
In fact, 10 of Illinois' 11 Republican U.S. House members released a statement, saying "an impartial review of the facts in court will expose the serious deficits in this map and reverse the naked partisan power-grab contemplated by Democrats."
Urbana 15th District Republican Congressman Tim Johnson chose to stay out of the lawsuit. His spokesman, Phil Bloomer, said it is not because the Congressman doesn't support it.
"Congressman Johnson certainly believes that the redistricting process leading up to this map was unfair and a distortion of the people's issues," he said. "He's been in office and public service one way or another for over 40 years, and none of these challenges have ever succeeded. So he's decided to devote his energy and resources to his re-election campaign in the 13th District."
Johnson's new territory includes all or part of 33 counties in Southeast Illinois.
The lawsuit claims the map aims to erase Republican gains and dilute Latino voters. Democrats drew the map because they control the Illinois Legislature and the governor's office. Gov. Pat Quinn signed it into law last month. The new map gave Illinois 18 instead of 19 congressional districts because of the state's slowing population growth.
If the lawsuit fails, some members of the group may face each other on the ballot next year. One Republican who finds himself in a complicated political position is freshman Congressman Joe Walsh from the Northwest suburbs.
I know I'm running somewhere," Walsh said. "I don't know where. I live in what would be the new 14th. My district office is in what would be the new 10th. A big chunk of my district is in what would be the new 6th."
If Walsh does choose to run where he lives - the 14th - it's likely to set up a primary challenge with another freshman congressman, Randy Hultgren.
Yesterday, the heavy-weight conservative group Club for Growth announced that if the redistricting lawsuit fails, it will endorse Walsh in that race, saying he is distinguished himself as a "pro growth leader" during his short time in Congress.
Hultgren's staff didn't return requests for comment.
Last week the GOP's leaders in the Illinois legislature, state Rep. Tom Cross and state Sen. Christine Radogno, sued the state over the boundaries included in the map for state legislative districts.
Both lawsuits name as defendants the Illinois State Board of Elections, which will be represented in court by the office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
Regarding both cases, Madigan spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler emailed, "We plan to vigorously defend the state.
The city of Champaign is looking to give some motorists another option for those who don't have change for the parking meter.
City council members Tuesday will be asked to give preliminary approval for a test run of 'smart meters' downtown. The first 37 of them, which accept debit and credit cards, would be installed in the 100 block of North Walnut Street, and on Chester Street between Neil and Market Streets.
Patti Anderson is a management analyst with Champaign's Public Works Department. She says the meters should boost city revenue, but also cut down on parking tickets.
"You can expect to see parking violations decrease because people are more inclined, with the credit card, to put in the full amount for the time limit," said Anderson. "And so, that way you need more revenue generated because they put more money in in the first place, but you do see a decrease in parking fines."
The city is planning a six-month trial for the first meters to see how colder weather affects them. Champaign may then purchase those meters, install about 30 more north of the trial area, and 100 additional ones in the easternmost portion of Campustown.
The city council meets in a study session starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday. But even if they're finalized next week, city staff says it could be a while before the meters are actually in place, since Champaign first has to set up a schedule with a vendor for installing them.
The University of Illinois and city of Urbana are also exploring the use of smart meters.
Indiana lawmakers are debating right-to-work legislation that sparked a five-week walkout by House Democrats and could set a contentious tone when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
Commerce Secretary Mitch Roob opened a day-long hearing Tuesday, saying he supported legislation because it makes it easier to bring manufacturing jobs to Indiana.
But Gov. Mitch Daniels said Tuesday he's unsure if he would support a bill.
House Democrats left the state for five weeks this year to block Republicans from advancing the measure. The move was similar to that of Wisconsin Senate Democrats who staged a walkout to stifle Republican Gov. Scott Walker's efforts to cut collective bargaining rights.
The proposal would allow workers to be protected under labor contracts without having to pay union dues.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn wants to negotiate with unions to keep labor reforms at Chicago's McCormick Place convention center.
But he also says he and top lawmakers are ready to bring legislators back to Springfield in September to fine tune any necessary legislation.
Quinn met Tuesday with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the state's four legislative leaders about ways to keep the work rule changes.
A federal judge ruled in March that many of the labor reforms lawmakers wanted at McCormick were illegal because they went beyond the terms of union contracts.
The judge also ruled legislators overturned collective bargaining rights in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
Some conventions have pulled out of the city because of the high cost to host events at McCormick.
The financially-struggling U.S. Postal Service is putting thousands of post offices under review for possible closure - including many in east central Illinois.
Two of them are Champaign's Campustown post office and the facility inside the U of I's Altgeld Hall. But most are rural post offices in some of the smallest communities. They include Bondville, Dewey, Ivesdale, Penfield, Royal and Longview in Champaign County as well as Armstrong, Collison, Indianola and Muncie in Vermilion County and DeLand in Piatt County.
Valerie Welsch is with the post office's district headquarters in Saint Louis. Welsch said being on the list does not necessarily mean closure -customers who use those post offices will be given questionnaires before any closing decision is made.
"The local operations manager will make a determination whether they think that's possible," she said. "If they do, that'll get forwarded to the district manager. If he feels it's warranted, then it will go to our national headquarters in Washington, DC for a final decision."
Welsch said if a post office is tagged for closure, there is another 30-day public appeal process. She said the Postal Service is seeing more people use online and other retail services for things like stamps. Welsch also said post offices in communities are sometimes replaced by community postal boxes.
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is asking a federal judge for a new trial after being convicted last month on 17 counts of corruption, including trying to sell a vacant U.S. Senate seat.
Blagojevich's lawyers filed a 158-page motion with 10 different categories detailing why they think the former governor didn't get a fair trial.
In a signed affidavit, Blagojevich stated that he only took the stand because his attorneys assured him he would be able to tell jurors he sincerely believed his actions had been legal. He added that he would not have waived his constitutional right to not testify had he known Judge James Zagel would sustain prosecutors' objections whenever he started talking about the perceived legality of his actions.
In the filing, Blagojevich's attorneys say Judge Zagel tried to read the mind of defense lawyers, limiting which topics they could and couldn't bring up. Attorneys also assert Zagel should have allowed the defense to play secretly-recorded conversations in which Blagojevich talked about appointing Attorney General Lisa Madigan to a vacant senate seat.
Defense attorneys says that prosecutors tainted the jury pool by holding a press conference the day Blagojevich was arrested.
In the filing - defense attorneys say even before the trial began - they tried to make sure people like Juror #116 didn't get on the jury. Juror #116 said he believed Blagojevich was guilty, but the judge let him pass through.
On the other hand - Blagojevich's attorneys say Juror #213 should not only have sat on the jury - but also should get an award - because she said defendants are innocent until proven guilty. That juror was dismissed from the jury pool.
A hearing is scheduled before the judge next week.
(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) says House Republicans are pushing the country to the brink of an economic disaster. But with a debt limit deadline just over a week away, the Illinois Democrat himself opposes a plan that could temporarily avert default.
Durbin Monday talked of the dire consequences to interest rates, if no debt limit deal is reached.
"It is a decision by the Republicans to push us to absolute brinkmanship here and to risk this economy and the jobs that are associated with it," Durbin said at an unrelated press conference in Chicago.
Durbin said he wants a compromise. But he flatly dismissed Republican House Speaker John Boehner's short-term bill to cut spending by about $1.2 billion and extend the debt ceiling for about six months.
"This is exactly the wrong time to do this, with economies failing all around Europe, with our own economy under attack by those giving credit reports, we should not be lurching from one political and economic crisis to another," Durbin said.
Boehner's measure could come to a vote on Wednesday. House GOP leaders have scheduled a second vote Thursday on a balanced-budget constitutional amendment long favored by rank-and-file conservatives.
Durbin said he has been in contact with Democratic leader Harry Reid, who's pushing a budget-cutting plan that would extend the debt limit through 2012 - past next year's election.
With an Aug. 2 deadline rapidly closing, Congress and the White House had limited options to avoid a potential government default that could send the already weak economy into a damaging swoon.
A Cook County commissioner is quietly proposing an ordinance that would require the county's massive jail to release some inmates wanted by immigration authorities.
Sponsored by Jesús García, (D-Chicago), the measure would prohibit the jail from holding inmates based on an Immigration and Customs Enforcement request unless they have been convicted of a felony or two misdemeanors, and unless the county gets reimbursed.
The legislation's preamble states complying with the ICE detainers "places a great strain on our communities by eroding the public trust that local law enforcement depends on to secure the accurate reporting of criminal activity and to prevent and solve crimes."
The jail now holds detainees requested by ICE for up to 48 hours after their criminal cases would allow them to walk free. Sheriff Tom Dart's office said the jail turns over about a half dozen inmates to the federal agency each business day.
Dart this month told Illinois Public Radio station, WBEZ, that his staff was exploring legal options for releasing some of these inmates. The sheriff said his review began after he noticed that San Francisco County Sheriff Michael Hennessey had ordered his department to quit honoring certain ICE detainers beginning June 1.
If Dart's office follows Hennessey's path or if García's legislation wins approval, Cook County could become the nation's largest local jurisdiction to halt blanket compliance with ICE holds.
"Cook County would be a counter pole to Arizona's Maricopa County," said Chris Newman, general counsel of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a Los Angeles-based group that opposes involving local authorities in immigration enforcement.
García's office didn't return WBEZ calls or messages about his legislation. The offices of Sheriff Dart and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said they had viewed the bill but declined to say whether they supported it.
A spokeswoman for Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez said late Tuesday her office had not been consulted about García's proposal. A 2009 letter from Alvarez to Dart's office said federal law required the sheriff to comply with "any ICE detainers" lodged with the jail.
In recent months, however, immigration authorities have acknowledged that local jails do not have to comply with the detainers.
Asked for comment about García's legislation, ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa sent a statement calling the detainers "critical" for deporting "criminal aliens and others who have no legal right to remain in the United States."
"Individuals arrested for misdemeanors may ultimately be identified as recidivist offenders with multiple prior arrests, in addition to being in violation of U.S. immigration law," the ICE statement said. "These individuals may have been deported before or have outstanding orders of removal."
Jurisdictions that ignore immigration detainers would be responsible for "possible public safety risks," the statement added.
García's proposal is on the county board's agenda for Wednesday morning. Possible steps by commissioners include referring the measure to committee or approving it immediately.
The cities of Champaign and Urbana are close to signing off on plans that will start construction on the 'Big Broadband' project with the University of Illinois.
The U of I has taken the lead in getting the more than $22-million federal grant and a $3.5 million state grant, but is leaving much work to the cities as work starts up.
The university's Mike Smeltzer, the principal investigator of the grant, said the agreements will explain the relationship between the two cities and U of I with regard to the project. The U of I will then agree to reallocate a portion of grant funds to the cities for the project, along with contracts dealing with construction companies. Smeltzer said these agreements, by and large, mean avoiding disagreement later.
"We're getting some things down in writing that certainly have been in some people's heads," he said. "But you know, if three people have a conversation and not everybody walks away from that conversation with the exact same memory of what was talked about, this is getting it all down in writing so there's really a not a whole lot of room for misunderstanding in terms of who's doing what, and where's the money going, and why."
Smeltzer said the construction contracts for both and Urbana and Champaign's portion of Big Broadband, or UC2B, are expected to go before their city councils by next week. He said that means construction could begin by late August or early September, and the project should be completed on time, by February of 2013.
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Media)
The three victims of a fiery plane crash in Rantoul have been identified.
Fifty-six-year-old Jon Buerkett, his wife, 47-year-old Dana Buerkett, and their daughter, 19-year-old Morgan Buerkett, all of Champaign, were killed Sunday when the single-engine plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Rantoul Airport.
A preliminary autopsy conducted late Monday by Champaign County Coroner Duane Northup indicates all three family members died from blunt force trauma.
Rantoul Police Chief Paul Farber says severe weather was rolling into the area at the time of the crash. The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash.
Tom Fiedler, a friend of Jon Buerkett, said Monday they were co-owners of Melody Music in Champaign, a coin-operated music and equipment company. Dana Buerkett owned her own marketing business and Morgan Buerkett was a University of Chicago student.
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