Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 27, 2011

New Illinois Congressional Map Released

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)

Illinois Democrats have released a much-anticipated map of new congressional districts.

The new map shows the state with 18 U.S. House districts after it lost one of its seats because of slowing population growth in the latest census.

The congressional map is a chance for Democrats to try to neutralize Republicans who captured a number of U.S. House seats in the last election.

The proposed map squeezes districts into new shapes and some Republicans will find themselves drawn into districts with other incumbents. A political science professor at the University of Illinois said the map could force Republican incumbents to face off in a primary or campaign elsewhere.

Brian Gaines said it appears as if Democrats deliberately chose new districts that could make life hard for some GOP incumbents. The map places much of Champaign-Urbana in a new 13th congressional district that also includes parts of Madison County, home to Republican John Shimkus. Meanwhile, Urbana Republican Tim Johnson's 15th district would draw all or parts of 33 counties in Southeast Illinois. Gaines said some changes had to be made because Illinois lost a Congressional seat due to population shifts, but he said some could have been intentional.

"It does look very much like they picked their shapes given where there were population losses, where you had to draw the line," Gaines said. "They went out of their way to make sure Republican incumbents would be paired up and would have this difficult choice of running against each other in the primary, or trying to relocate and run in a district that doesn't have very many voters who have ever voted for them before."

In a statement, Congressman Johnson called the map 'a slap in the face' to the notion of representative government, dividing communities for blatant partisan gain.' The one portion of Champaign-Urbana that remains in Johnson's district is his home in the Beringer Commons subdivision.

The Congressman said he will embrace new territories with all his energy, but spokesman Phil Bloomer said there will likely be a legal challenge to the new map since it only contains one Hispanic district in the Chicago area. But he says the map should be rejected on principle alone for splitting up communities like Champaign-Urbana, and adding all the counties to the south.

"That's a long way from tom to bottom," said Bloomer. "And a lot of new territory, and a lot of new people to get to know. It hurts because you build up these relationships with people and institutions in all these areas in the last 10 years Tim has been in office. And it's hard to give all that up."

Gaines said 11th District Republican Adam Kinzinger may have worst position of all incumbents in the new map, because his district has been stretched out to a suburban Chicago area served by Democrat Jesse Jackson Jr.

The proposed congressional map was the last piece of the redistricting puzzle for Illinois Democrats. They have already released proposed new state House and Senate districts. Democrats are in charge of the process because they control the state Legislature and the governor's office.

Here's a look at some of the key changes:

+Judy Biggert, 13th CD: Placed at the suburban end of a new 5th district that stretches to Chicago and the territory of Democrat Mike Quigley.

+Robert Dold, 10th CD: Would share a new 9th district with popular Democratic incumbent Jan Schakowsky.

+Randy Hultgren, 14th CD: House lies just yards inside the boundaries of new 14th, which would also be home to Joe Walsh

+Adam Kinzinger, 11th CD: Put into the rural, less-populated end of a new 2nd with long-time incumbent Jesse Jackson Jr.

+Bobby Schilling, 17th CD: New 17th loses rural, Republican territory and picks up Democratic-leaning areas, including Peoria.

+Joe Walsh, 8th CD: Lumped with Hultgren into the new 14th.

Categories: Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 26, 2011

Plan to Cut HMO’s From State Contract Means More Calls by U of I Employees

A state agency's plans to proceed with new health insurance contracts means a number of calls have come in to the University of Illinois' Payroll and Benefits office.

On Wednesday, Illinois' Department of Healthcare and Family Services opted to proceed with a contract that leaves out Health Alliance and Humana HMO's.

Executive Director of U of I Payroll and Benefits Jim Davito says his office is taking questions from state workers in areas with no HMO coverage now asked to choose between Personal Care and HealthLink Open Access Plans, and the state's own Quality Care Health Plan. DaVito says concerns have ranged from higher cost to changing doctors.

He encourages state employees and retirees to thoroughly research their plans, and not have one chosen for them if they miss the June 17th deadline.

"We would much rather see each of our employees choose the new plan that they're going to have starting July 1, rather than having a default option defined by CMS (the State Department of Central Management Services) determine what coverage you're going to have for the next year," said Davito, who says the pending changes for state workers should prompt them to thoroughly review their benefits package. He says the same for some who have been on HealthLink the past few years.

"Many people have chosen it, but a lot of people have never looked at it," said Davito. "And so it's a new concept, and I would encourage people to look at the literature, and call HealthLink, and call Personal Care OAP, and talk about the questions that you have."

Davito says the Open Access Plans are unusual in that they're composed of three tiers, with the lowest tier being similar to an HMO. The state agency is moving forward with the state insurance contract despite a vote against it Wednesday by the legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.

The U of I plans to hold more Benefits Choice informational sessions on campus soon.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 26, 2011

Blagojevich Recounts His Biography in Meandering Testimony

Ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich told jurors Thursday about his life and blue collar roots while testifying at his corruption retrial in Chicago.

Introducing himself to jurors, he said, "I used to be your governor" and "I'm here today to tell you the truth."

The testimony has been mostly autobiographical, though at times Blagojevich has made obvious attempts to link this background to the federal charges he now faces.

He proceeded to talk about his upbringing in a working-class Chicago neighborhood. Blagojevich spoke in a low voice and remembered his first hit in little league baseball. Jurors watched him intently.

Blagojevich described his first jobs as a shoeshine boy and then working in a packing company. He talked about his father leaving home to work on the Alaskan pipeline. Blagojevich said he also worked on the pipeline, washing pots and pans.

Blagojevich's voice broke when he spoke about his deceased parents. He later choked up when he began to tell the story of how he met his wife, Patti. That prompted Judge James Zagel to send the jury out of the room, and call for a lunch break.

Earlier, Blagojevich addressed his days as an undergrad at Northwestern University. He told jurors that he often felt inferior compared to other students. But he said he got good grades, and was a history buff.

"I had a man crush on Alexander Hamilton," Blagojevich said.

In talking about Winston Churchill and how leaders made decisions, the ex-governor offered a preview of his defense to the corruption charges he faces, some of which are based off secretly taped phone calls with his aides.

Blagojevich said, like Churchill, he believes in "full discussion," that leaders "should be free" to bounce ideas off advisers, to "end up in the right place."

Later, talking about law school, Blagojevich said he applied to a number of top schools, including Harvard University. The rejection letter, he said, "came back pretty quick." Blagojevich eventually went to Pepperdine University in California. His first year, he said, was "almost catastrophic," because he wanted to read history books instead of law books.

Blagojevich attorney Aaron Goldstein asked him about his friendship with Lon Monk. Monk is a former Blagojevich aide who testified against him in exchange for a lighter sentence for himself.

Blagojevich said he met Monk while studying abroad in England during law school, and it developed into "a lifelong, very close friendship."

He talked about how different his upbringing and family were Monk's, whose father was a successful California obstetrician and gynecologist. Blagojevich said he "became very close" with Monk's family. He said they had a "beautiful house...with peacocks in the back yard."

"I love Lon Monk," Blagojevich said of his once-close friend. Asked if he trusted him, the ex-governor said, "Absolutely. Infinitely."

The ex-governor talked about how he worked as a paralegal for Ed Vrdolyak, at the time a lawyer and Chicago alderman.

"I didn't do a lot of law," Blagojevich said, noting that his job consisted of doing campaign work for, among others, then-Mayor Jane Byrne, and picking up cheesecakes for the alderman's driver.

Blagojevich said Vrdolyak later reneged on a promise to hire him, and again on a promise to get him a job with the Cook County State's Attorney's office. He was hired anyway, working in the office while Richard M. Daley was state's attorney.

"While he was my boss, I never saw him," said Blagojevich. He talked about his work in the traffic division, and later on domestic violence cases.

No doubt in an effort to make sure the jury knew he was not professionally familiar with the laws he is accused of breaking, Blagojevich attorney Aaron Goldstein asked the ex-governor a series of questions about his struggles to pass the bar exam, and his experience in private practice. Blagojevich testified that he never worked on any federal case, nonetheless one involving the fraud or extortion statutes.

Blagojevich's attorney cited his tendency for profanity. Blagojevich then apologized directly to jurors. He said when you hear the curses and swear words, "it makes you wince." Blagojevich called himself a jerk for swearing.

Once his own attorneys are done questioning him, Blagojevich is sure to face blistering cross-examination from the government. Prosecutors are likely to replay FBI wiretaps that captured his blunt talk.

Blagojevich's testimony comes on the heels of a terrible day in court for the defense Wednesday.

They called Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to the stand. He testified for only four minutes. They also called Jesse Jackson Jr. who said he never offered Blagojevich money in return for being appointed to Barack Obama's old senate seat.

But under cross examination by prosecutors, Jackson offered up a whole new allegation of extortion. He says Blagojevich asked for a $25,000 dollar campaign contribution, but Jackson didn't pay. Later, Jackson's wife, Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson, applied for, but was denied a job in the Blagojevich administration. At a subsequent meeting Jackson says the governor referred to the job, then snapped his fingers and pointed in an Elvis-like way and said, "You should have given me that $25,000."

Jurors wouldn't have heard this story if Blagojevich's lawyers hadn't called Jackson to the stand. The anecdote is like an additional criminal count against the former governor, compliments of his own defense team.

Blagojevich's attorneys didn't call any witnesses during his first trial last year. That jury deadlocked on 23 of 24 counts, including allegations that Blagojevich tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat.

(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 26, 2011

Gambling Expansion Blocked by House Panel

One state lawmaker is taking a gamble on a big expansion to the state's gaming industry, and so far it isn't paying out.

The latest plan to grow the number of casinos has hit a snag.

Skokie House Democrat Lou Lang says a short drive across the Illinois border shows just how much money the state is losing out on.

"If you go to gaming enterprises in other states and never get out of your car and just drive through the parking lot around the states that surround Illinois, you'd see nothing but Illinois license plates," Lang said.

Five new casinos, slot machines at race tracks and video gaming are all packed into Lang's proposal. That was enough for a House panel to give it a thumbs down. Opponents call it overreaching and a monumental expansion. Existing riverboat casinos railed against it, saying the gambling market is already saturated. Tom Swoik, who represents those casinos, says revenues have dropped by nearly a third and building more won't generate new dollars.

"That's like saying that a third of the houses available are vacant but let's help the economy by building more houses," Swoik said.

Governor Quinn has indicated his willingness to discuss a Chicago casino. Lang could scale back what he's asking for, but he won't have much time to change it before the legislature is set to adjourn next week.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 26, 2011

Illinois Dems Closing in on Budget Deal

Democratic leaders in Springfield say they're getting closer to reaching a deal on a state budget.

The state House has already passed a bipartisan spending plan. But it would appropriate $1 billion less than the version approved by Senate Democrats. Now, Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, says he's willing to go along with the House's $32 billion proposal.

"I think we're going to have a very positive experience here. I know we're going to have a balanced budget," Cullerton said Thursday. "Each chamber has passed a balanced budget. So this is just a matter of how much more we can save and pay down of our existing debt."

Cullerton said he's beginning to negotiate with House Speaker Michael Madigan to reconcile their two budget proposals.

Meanwhile, an Illinois Senate committee is advancing a plan to pay down state debt by borrowing $6 billion. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has said he wants to borrow more than $8 billion to pay down a backlog of overdue bills. But many Republicans oppose the idea.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 25, 2011

Il. Commission Votes to Suspend Open Access Plans for State Employees

(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)

The state agency in charge of health insurance for public employees says it is going forward with a plan to drop Health Alliance HMO and Humana as options for state and university employees' medical insurance.

Urbana-based Health Alliance and Humana have protested the move.

The state's decision comes in spite of a vote Wednesday morning by the bipartisan Commission on Governmental Forecasting and Accountability (CGFA) to end self-insured/Open Access Plans for state employees, which is what the state planned to move employees to in areas where the HMO/Blue Cross Blue Shield plan isn't available. The vote potentially sets up a constitutional clash over the fate of health insurance for about 100,000 state and university workers.

Moving many employees to this sort of plan is how Governor Pat Quinn's administration had been planning to save up to $100 million a year.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a ruling last week stating that legislators don't have the power to interfere with specific contracts. However, despite Madigan's ruling, State Senator and CGFA member Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) said the commission has the authority to weigh in on policy changes. He also noted that the commission's vote reflects a major policy shift in self-insurance at the state level.

"And that's something we have consent power over," Frerichs said. "We don't have the ability to consent to individual contracts, but this big policy shift we do. We rejected that, and I think that will necessitate rebidding of the whole package."

State Senator Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) also sits on the commission. He said the vote by CGFA was done as an attempt to get all parties back to the bargaining table.

"My hope is that everybody involved in this process, rather than rush into court and having lawsuits, can all sit down together and try and perhaps try and rebid it, come up with a different plan," Murphy said.

It is unclear if the commission's vote is binding, and could send matters into a tailspin. The Department of Healthcare and Family Services is going forward as if that vote was insignificant.

"We followed the letter of the law," DHFS spokeswoman Stacey Solano said. "Everything was done fairly, it was done ethically, so why would we reopen the bidding?"

Downstate legislators have been highly critical of the decision to drop Health Alliance. They have shown no signs of letting down.

Meanwhile, many of the employees and retirees with Health Alliance as medical insurance say they don't want a new provider because they fear they will be forced to switch doctors. They are also concerned they will pay more out of pocket on doctor's visits.

As it stands now, state employees have until June 17 to decide what provider they want for medical coverage. The state is also considering opening another enrollment period this fall.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 25, 2011

Report Looks at Substance Use Among Illinois Teens

A study out, known as the Illinois Youth Survey, shows fewer Illinois teens are smoking cigarettes and drinking large amounts of alcohol at once, but the survey says marijuana use appears to be steady.

Beth Welbes with the Center for Prevention Research and Development at the University of Illinois said nationally, marijuana use is going up. She said the state findings show more teens are downplaying the risks associated with smoking marijuana.

"The state rates and the state estimates are really valuable, especially for state policy makers because they can take a look and they can see where do we need to direct our resources in terms of substance abuse prevention and other health areas," Welbes said.

The survey also reported a drop in DUIs among high school seniors, and a decrease in the use of illicit drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamine.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 25, 2011

Defense to Question Gov’t Witness in Mumbai Case

An admitted American terrorist who scouted sites in the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks is expected to face intense questioning from defense attorneys Wednesday when he returns to the stand as the government's star witness in the trial of a Chicago businessman accused of helping him.

David Coleman Headley's testimony has alleged close coordination between Pakistan's main intelligence agency and militants in the three-day rampage that killed more than 160 people in India's largest city.

Headley, who pleaded guilty in plotting the attacks, is the government's top witness in the trial of Chicago businessman Tahawwur Rana. His testimony also comes at a pivotal moment in U.S.-Pakistan relations, just weeks after Navy SEALs found Osama bin Laden hiding outside Islamabad, raising concerns that Pakistan may have been protecting the world's most wanted terrorist.

Defense attorneys get their first chance to undermine Headley's credibility before jurors on Wednesday. Attorneys for Rana, who is accused of helping Headley establish cover in Mumbai and for another plot in Denmark, have called Headley manipulative and claimed he had other reasons in implicating Rana, his longtime friend.

"Some of the evidence that we expect to come in will show that David Headley absolutely had additional motives, including protecting his wife," Rana attorney Charles Swift told reporters this week. "There's written proof that she knew and there's not going to be that same proof where Dr. Rana's concerned."

Federal prosecutors have guided Headley through days of testimony where he provided rare insight into the web of international terrorism.

Pakistan has deflected the accusations and repeated what it's maintained since 2008: The Inter-Services Intelligence agency, known as ISI, had no links to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani-based terrorists who claimed credit for the Mumbai attacks.

The ISI knew about and helped fund and direct the Mumbai plot, Headley said.

A "frogman" in Pakistan's military even helped select a landing site in Mumbai where Lashkar terrorists would arrive by boat, he testified. Headley recalled an instance a few years before the Mumbai plot conception when Lashkar leaders wanted to get signoff from the ISI before making a decision that could have diplomatic consequences with the U.S.

"They coordinated with each other, and ISI provided assistance to Lashkar," Headley said.

Headley, who said he started working with Lashkar in 2000, said the Pakistan-based terror group, and the ISI operate under the same umbrella. As Headley scouted sites for targets in Mumbai, he met regularly and received money from someone he said was an ISI major, known only as "Major Iqbal."

Iqbal and Headley's regular Lashkar contact, Sajid Mir, both gave him the same instructions for where to go and what to scope out, he said. Headley would provide videos he took of sights in Mumbai to Iqbal and then to Mir. Headley said Mir and Iqbal were in contact with each other. Headley has testified that Rana was apprised of all developments and largely approved.

In October 2008, Headley said he and his Lashkar and ISI handlers all met together in Pakistan, about a month before the attacks. During this meeting, the men also talked for the first time about a separate plot to attack a Danish newspaper that in 2005 had printed cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, Headley said. That plot was foiled by law enforcement.

"I suggested we only focus on the cartoonist and the editor," Headley testified of a later meeting with Mir. "He said, 'All Danes are responsible for this.'"

Prosecutors showed emails among the three men - some of them forwarded to Rana - detailing points on the Mumbai attacks and the aftermath.

Defense attorneys have raised issues with Headley's credibility. He reached a plea deal with prosecutors in the terrorism case in exchange for avoiding the death penalty and previously had been an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration after a heroin conviction.

Though Rana is on trial, much of Headley's testimony so far has focused on his dealings with Iqbal, Mir and Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed, identified by prosecutors as a retired Pakistani military with links to Iqbal. All three are charged in absentia.

(AP Photo/Tom Gianni)

Categories: Criminal Justice
Tags: crime

AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 25, 2011

Source: Blagojevich Witnesses to Include Emanuel, Jackson, Jr.

Rod Blagojevich's attorneys are set to begin their first defense of the former Illinois governor in his second trial on corruption charges.

A person familiar with the defense plans says new Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. will be among the opening witnesses. The person spoke on condition of anonymity, citing not being authorized to speak publicly.

In the first trial last year, Blagojevich's attorneys rested without calling a single witness. The jury later deadlocked on 23 of the 24 counts against the former governor, including allegations that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat in exchange for campaign funds or a job for himself.

The defense attorneys say the two elected officials could help prove Blagojevich's actions weren't crimes.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 24, 2011

Ethics Commission Upholds Decision to Drop Health Alliance HMO, Humana

Ethics Commission Upholds Decision to Drop Health Alliance HMO, Humana

There's disappointing news for state and university employees and retirees who had been holding out hope Illinois would continue to offer Health Alliance and Humana health insurance.


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