Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 12, 2011

Sen. Durbin Touts Federal Funding for Food Assistance Programs

Illinois' Senior Senator says a Congressional 'super committee' tasked with finding $1.5 trillion dollars in federal savings over the next 10 years has their work cut out for them.

The bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which is made up of six Republicans and six Democrats, has until Thanksgiving to come up with a plan, and then sell it to the rest of Congress.

It's unclear where possible budget cuts may happen, but Democratic US Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said food assistance programs should be preserved.

During a visit Friday morning to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank in Urbana, Durbin underlined the importance of these services, saying food banks across the state have seen a 50 percent uptick in food assistance requests during the last couple of years. Durbin also pointed out that the Eastern Illinois Foodbank has increased food distribution by 24 percent during the same period.

"My hope is that as we look for ways to cut spending, and we don't do it at the expense of feeding children and families that are struggling," Durbin said. "I hope that we can all agree - both parties can agree - on a good starting point there to preserve the safety net."

The Eastern Illinois Foodbank said last year it gave out 6.8 million pounds of food, with federal commodities making up about a quarter of that stock from The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

"It's been a really important program for food banks during the recession," said Cheryl Precious, director of development at the Eastern Illinois Foodbank. "We're worried about it to say the least."

Precious said the Eastern Illinois Foodbank is anticipating a 50 percent reduction in federal commodities for this upcoming year.

"That's going to significantly impact us," Precious said. "We're going to have to make up that food by purchasing or increasing donations or we're just going to have to get creative about it."

Durbin also emphasized the importance of social safety net programs - like unemployment benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, and job re-training programs. He said he hopes the country's financial problems and the recent downgrade of the nation's credit rating by Standard and Poors serve as a wakeup call to the 12-lawmakers on the bipartisan deficit reduction committee.

"If they go in with a spirit of bipartisanship and compromise where both sides are willing to give, we can get this resolved," Durbin said. "If they walk into the door with preconceived notions and political positions that are non-negotiable, nothing is going to happen. It's going to fail."

Durbin wouldn't comment on specific programs that should be cut, but he said he would like to see tax breaks for the wealthiest people trimmed back.

"If there's no agreement, we go into automatic cuts in both the defense and veterans side of it, as well as the other non-defense spending," he said. "I don't believe we can rationalize cutting the safety net in America when so many working families life from pay check to paycheck, and many with a paycheck can't make ends meet."

Meanwhile, Illinois' other US senator, Republican Mark Kirk, weighed in on the Congressional committee's task ahead during a news conference Wednesday in Chicago. Kirk said he does not think there is consensus in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives for any tax hikes.

Congress is in recess until after Labor Day. Kirk said the joint commission should start meeting next Monday. He also urged President Obama to recall Congress to get to work on the nation's debt problems.

"Congress should not be in recess right now," Kirk said. "We see tremendous anxiety with the potential of the U.S. to go into recession and one of the greatest ways to restore confidence is, not to have a speech and not to lay out a set of vague principles, but to see the elected representatives of the American people working on entitlement reforms right away."

If the committee fails to meet its Thanksgiving deadline to come up with a plan, or if Congress rejects their proposal, then $1.2 trillion dollars in automatic budget cuts would go into effect. Critics are expressing doubt that the bipartisan panel will overcome its stark political differences.

(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 12, 2011

Unit 4 Officials Say Regional Office of Education Needed

Regional Education Superintendents in Illinois have been working without pay, ever since Gov. Pat Quinn cut their salaries out of the 2012 state budget. Quinn had said the elected positions are too costly, and not essential.

The salary cuts worried officials at the Champaign Unit Four School District, which is preparing six new and renovated school buildings for the fall semester.

At Unit 4's monthly news conference Friday morning, interim superintendent Robert Malito said the school district has sped up work this week on occupancy permits for the buildings, to make sure they were signed by Regional Superintendent Jane Quinlan before any disruptions occurred. Malito said Quinlin's signature on the documents is essential.

"Without those approvals from her, we would not be able to open," Malito said.

Malito said that under current state law, only the regional superintendent can sign off on the permits --- and that there are other duties, like certifying teachers, that only they can do as well.

Malito dismisses Gov. Quinn's suggestion that local school districts fund the regional offices. He said it is worth investigating how other states handle the duties of the regional offices to see if they do it more cost-effectively. But he said the office should NOT be eliminated before something is set up to replace it.

"Cutting us off at the knees and stopping that funding so drastically did not give the area school districts an opportunity to plan or prepare for making that sort of change," Unit 4 School Board President Sue Grey said.

Unit 4 officials say the paperwork for the occupancy permits were sent to Regional Superintendent Quinlan's office on Friday. The buildings include the new Booker T. Washington and Garden Hills magnet schools. In addition, Westview, Bottenfield, Kenwood and Robeson Elementary Schools were renovated, with new energy-saving windows over the summer.

Categories: Education
Tags: education

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 11, 2011

UI President Opens Up Scholarship to Undocumented Immigrants

University of Illinois President Michael Hogan says he has set up a scholarship fund that is available to students who are U.S. citizens and undocumented immigrants.

Students who are not living in this country lawfully have been ineligible for scholarships in Illinois, but that changed this month after Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation known as the Illinois Dream Act. The measure opens up privately funded college scholarships to illegal immigrants.

Hogan said he gave a $100,000 contribution to the University of Illinois Foundation for the scholarship, which will be for students majoring in history. He said every student should have a chance to get into the U of I, regardless of their legal status.

"It's both need and merit based," Hogan explained. "They're in a great position now to make a long-time contribution to the well-being of our state, and sustain a great reputation of the university."

Students can apply for the U of I scholarship through financial aid.

Gov. Quinn said he plans to appoint a nine-member commission by the middle of September to oversee scholarships created as a result of the Illinois Dream Act. Students must have at least one immigrant parent and must have attended school in Illinois for at least three years to qualify for scholarship money.

Illinois and several other states already provide undocumented students in-state tuition.

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Categories: Education, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 11, 2011

Ill. Sen. Kirk Concerned Joint Committee is too Partisan

Illinois U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk cautioned Congress about a new committee that will fight the federal deficit.

Republicans and Democrats have selected nine of the committee's 12 members. Kirk said he is worried the committee won't be in a position to compromise.

"I worry about this joint commission that it may be too partisan," Kirk said. "One idea that I know will never have a chance would be to have the Democratic leaders to appoint the Republicans and the Republicans leaders appoint the Democrats, so that the people who played best in the sandbox would then take on the work of this joint committee."

Kirk urged President Obama to end the congressional recess so legislators can get the new debt committee ready by Monday.

Congress is not scheduled to return to work until after Labor Day.

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 11, 2011

Sara Lee Lowers Earnings Expectations as it Prepares for Spinoffs

Sara Lee Corp. said Thursday that its fiscal fourth-quarter profit fell 41 percent as it continued to sell-off businesses even as revenue rose on strong results from its North American segments and international beverages unit.

The results of the Downers Grove, IL. food company, which is shedding units as it works to split into two businesses, met analysts' expectations, but the company gave fiscal 2012 adjusted earnings and revenue outlooks below Wall Street's estimates. Its stock fell $1.31, or 7.6 percent, to $16 on the news.

Sara Lee's results continue to be affected by its ongoing plan to become leaner by shedding some operations before it splits into two businesses by early next year -- one focused on coffee and the other largely on meat. Just two days ago, Sara Lee said that it will sell its North American refrigerated dough business to Ralcorp for $545 million. Sara Lee said it's planning to realize $180 million to $200 million in costs savings during fiscal 2012 and 2013 as it prepares for the spinoff.

"Our objective of building two simpler, faster and more entrepreneurial businesses is being realized," Executive Chairman Jan Bennink said in a statement. "We have defined the organizational framework for our new companies and are continuing to build and restructure our teams for the future."

Like other food companies, Sara Lee's results were also impacted as it raised its prices to cope with higher ingredient costs. The company has increased prices across nearly all of its product lines and previously announced that it plans to make price increases all year. Sara Lee's leaders have said that they expect a stronger second half of the year as those price hikes take effect and the company releases new products.

During the current quarter, the company's units benefited from the price hikes. Total revenue rose 9 percent to $2.3 billion from $2.11 billion, topping Wall Street's projected $2.28 billion.

North American retail revenue rose 4 percent mostly because of higher prices. Revenue for the North American food service division climbed 9 percent on increased prices and experienced strong sales of Jimmy Dean breakfast sausages, pre-sliced pies and cakes and branded meats distributed through convenience stores.

The international beverage unit reported a 14 percent revenue increase partly on higher prices and increased green coffee export sales from Brazil. International bakery revenue fell 8 percent on competition in Spain and difficult economic conditions.

Sara Lee earned $111 million, or 19 cents per share, for the period ended July 2. That's down from $187 million, or 28 cents per share, a year ago. Adjusted earnings from continuing operations were 20 cents per share.

For the year, Sara Lee earned $1.29 billion, or $2.06 per share. That compares with earnings of $506 million, or 72 cents per share, in the previous year. Annual revenue rose to $8.68 billion from $8.34 billion.

Looking ahead, Sara Lee expects fiscal 2012 adjusted earnings of 89 cents to 95 cents per share on revenue of $8.5 billion to $8.75 billion. The guidance excludes the international bakery segment, which the company plans to sell. Analysts predict earnings of $1.07 per share on revenue of $9.35 billion.

(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Categories: Business, Economics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 11, 2011

Illinois Foreclosure Rates, Housing Prices Down from Last Year

A new report suggests Illinois' rate of home foreclosure fell 3.5 percent between June and July. The RealtyTrac Group said the foreclosure rate is now almost 50 percent lower than last year.

But there is still some bad housing news: a report from the Illinois Association of Realtors said that home prices are actually down 18 percent.

"The thing that we have continued to be fighting over the last several years is consumer confidence....And it was shaken by our budget talks," said Sheryl Grider Whitehurst, president of the IAR.

"So we need to get some stability out there in those marketplaces for people to feel comfortable again to move ahead with other major purchases," Whitehurst continued. "I know we personally had one buyer who backed out of looking at a home because she did receive Social Security checks and she said, 'I don't know if I'm going to receive my checks.'"

Whitehurst said it is best to compare this year's housing market with figures from 2009, not 2010, because buyers in 2010 benefited from a tax credit. The IAR predicts housing prices in the Chicago region will catch up with their 2010 levels in September.

Categories: Economics
Tags: economy

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 11, 2011

Villa Grove Cleans Up After Downtown Fire

The mayor of Villa Grove says the future of the Douglas County community's downtown remains a question mark after fire destroyed a 100-year old building Wednesday night.

Seventeen different departments fought the blaze, many of them staying throughout the night. There were no injuries. The State Fire Marshall is still investigating the cause. Villa Grove Mayor Thelma 'Boots' Blaney said the building was vacant, and most businesses on the north side of downtown, across Main Street, are open. But she said it will take some time for a local bar, beauty shop, and jewelry store to clean up from smoke and water damage.

Blaney said the firewall around the structures did its job, or the entire block would have been lost. She says those helping out overnight Wednesday motivated each other.

"The businesses just stepped up to the plate," she said. "We have pizzas and all kinds of drinks and ice. People were donating. Businesses were donating. You know, they all just stepped up to the plate, and the firefighters helped them keep going too."

Fire departments helping out included those from St. Joseph, Broadlands, Tuscola, Savoy, Philo, and Comargo.

"Right now, our main concern is getting it cleaned up and the safety of everyone, and trying to go from there," Blaney said. "I mean, it's just like everywhere else, you know, Villa Grove has been struggling. Lord knows what's going to hold up for the future."

Villa Grove Police say the buildings that were destroyed formerly housed the local Moose Lodge and a Chinese restaurant, but the structures had been empty for at least 10 years.

Categories: Business, Community, Economics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 11, 2011

West Nile Virus Found in Champaign County Mosquitoes

The West Nile virus has been discovered in Champaign County.

The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District said one of its mosquito samples from Urbana tested positive for the blood-borne disease. The Public Health District's Jeff Blackford said their test results were confirmed by the Illinois Natural History Survey.

Blackford said that with this evidence of West Nile Virus in Champaign County, it's time for residents to take precautions against catching the disease from a mosquito bite.

"Now is the time to take general precautions when you're protecting yourself when you're out by using EPA-registered insect repellent and wearing long sleeves and long pants whenever weather permits," Blackford said. "And if it at all possible, avoid being outdoors at dawn, dusk or early in the evening, when mosquitoes are most active."

Blackford also recommends changing standing water in bird baths, wading pools and water dishes twice a week, and throwing out old tires and other objects that can collect standing water, as a way to reduce the mosquito population around the yard.

Champaign County is the 12th Illinois county to find a bird or insect sample with the West Nile Virus so far this year. Macon County is also on the list. To date, no human cases of the disease have been reported in Illinois in 2011.

Categories: Health
Tags: health

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 11, 2011

Quinn Admin. Answers Charges on Appointments

Governor Pat Quinn's press secretary is discounting a charge from Republican John Bambenek that the Quinn administration's appointments to many state boards and commissions violate rules setting out how many members of each party may serve on a panel.

Bambanek said many of the governor's Independent appointees are actually Democrats, according to their voting records in primary elections. Among the examples he cites are Illinois Human Rights Commissioner Terry Cosgrove -- who Bambenek said has always voted in Democratic primaries. He also cites University of Illinois trustee Lawrence Oliver, who was appointed as an Independent in 2009, and voted in a Democratic primary in 2010.

But Quinn press secretary Brooke Anderson said those appointed as Independents to boards and commissions by the governor declared themselves as independents when they first applied.

"Each candidate for an appointment goes through a thorough application interview and comprehensive vetting process," Anderson said. "The majority of the governor's appointments have gone to individuals who applied to our website. Political affiliation is evaluated at the time of the appointment, based on the self-declaration of the candidate, and an additional review of the candidate's voting records."

Anderson also questions the credibility of Bambenek's charges, because his list of examples contains errors and includes several appointees held over from previous governors. In reply, Bambenek said his list is based on information on the Quinn administration's appointments as listed on the state appointments website, as of Aug. 1. He said the website was updated after he released his allegations.

Bambenek said that by appointing Independents who are actually Democrats, the Quinn administration is allowing several boards and commissions to have more Democrats than partisan balance rules allow. He said the practice raises questions about the legal status of those bodies that may have to be resolved by a judge.

Bambanek is running for the Republican nomination for state Senate in the 52nd District, against Champaign County Board member Alan Nudo. On the Democrats' side, incumbent Senator Mike Frerichs is seeking re-election.

Categories: Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 10, 2011

Comptroller Topinka Launches ‘Critters’ Program to Help Animal Shelters

Illinois Comptroller Judy Barr Topinka is showing her love for animals by helping shelters seek out homes for them, and cut down a little on Illinois' deficit.

Her trek around the state to promote the 'Comptroller's Critters' program included a stop Wednesday at the Champaign County Humane Society. Pictures of dogs, cats, and other animals from 70 shelters are now part of Topinka's web site. She calls the program one-stop shop for potential pet owners without spending more money.

"That web site already exists," Topinka said. "We don't buy any new programs. We don't hire any new people. We don't get any computers. There's no extra cost to the taxpayers that's already not out there."

Between housing the animals, and euthanizing them if they aren't found a home, it costs $250 to $300. Topinka said it is not close to Illinois' multi-billion dollar debt, but it's a start.

"But billions of dollars and trillions of dollars don't just start clean out of the box," she said. "They start at hundreds. They start at tens. They start low, and work their way up. And if all these taxing bodies in the state of Illinois get hit up, of which we have close to 80, it's still the same pair of pants, different pocket."

The Humane Society of Central Illinois, based in Normal, also is participating in Comptroller's Critters. As of Tuesday, more than 60 dogs, cats, and other pets have been adopted through the comptroller's new program.

Categories: Government, Politics

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