Illinois Public Media News
The month-long saga over Gov. Scott Walker's plan to drastically curb collective bargaining rights for public workers in Wisconsin took a turn Friday that could force a dramatic rebooting of the entire legislative process.
A judge temporarily blocked the law from taking effect, raising the possibility that the Legislature may have to vote again to pass the bill that attracted protests as large as 85,000 people, motivated Senate Democrats to escape to Illinois for three weeks and made Wisconsin the focus of the national fight over union rights.
But Walker's spokesman and Republican legislative leaders indicated they would press on with the court battle rather than consider passing the bill again.
"We fully expect an appeals court will find that the Legislature followed the law perfectly and likely find that today's ruling was a significant overreach," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and his brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, said in a joint statement. "We highly doubt a Dane County judge has the authority to tell the Legislature how to carry out its constitutional duty."
Dane County District Judge Maryann Sumi granted the temporary restraining order in response to a lawsuit filed by the local Democratic district attorney, alleging that Republican lawmakers violated the state's open meetings law by hastily convening a special committee before the Senate passed the bill.
Sumi said her ruling would not prevent the Legislature from reconvening the committee with proper notice and passing the bill again.
In addition to restricting the bargaining rights, the law would require most public workers in the state to contribute more to their pension and health care costs, changes that will amount on average to an 8 percent pay cut. Walker's spokesman Cullen Werwie was confident the bill would become law in the near future.
"This legislation is still working through the legal process," Werwie said.
Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said the decision will be appealed because the Legislature and the governor, not a judge, are responsible for enacting laws and can't be blocked in a dispute over the procedures under which a law is passed. His spokesman Bill Cosh said an appeal would be filed Monday.
Even if the Legislature is forced to come back and take up the bill again, at least one Senate Democrat will be there. Sen. Tim Cullen said he would not leave the state again.
"I think that does great damage to the institution," Cullen said. "I have no regrets about doing it once, but that was in extraordinary times to try to slow the bill down."
The Senate couldn't pass the bill in its original form without at least one Democrat to meet a 20-member quorum requirement for measures that spend money. With the Democrats in Illinois and refusing to return after three weeks away, Republicans convened a special committee last Wednesday to remove the spending items. The bill then passed with no Democrats present.
That move is being challenged in another lawsuit brought by Democratic Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who argues that the bill as passed still should have required the 20-member quorum. A hearing on that was set for April 12.
Opponents of the law were hopeful the judge's ruling temporarily blocking enactment of the law would lead to concessions.
"I would hope the Republicans would take this as an opportunity to sit down with Democrats and negotiate a proposal we could all get behind," said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach.
The head of the state's largest teachers union said the Legislature should use this as a chance to listen to opponents of the measure, not vote to pass the same bill again.
"Wisconsin's educators call upon the Legislature to take this as a clear signal that Wisconsinites will not tolerate backroom deals and political power plays when it comes to our public schools and other valued services," said Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
Marty Beil, director of the state's largest public employee union, said in a statement, "We are gratified to see some of our so-called `leaders' finally held accountable for their illegal actions."
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne filed the lawsuit this week alleging the open meetings law was violated because 24 hours' notice wasn't given for a meeting of the special legislative committee convened to amend the bill.
Justice Department attorneys argued that notice on a bulletin board posted about two hours before the committee meeting was to start last Wednesday was sufficient under rules of the Senate.
The judge said DOJ couldn't show the committee was exempt from the 24-hour notice requirement. She said Ozanne could ultimately win the case and ordered Secretary of State Doug La Follette to hold off on publishing the law - the last step before it can take effect. La Follette had planned to publish the law on March 25.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha said the ruling was a move in the right direction.
"I'm very pleased," Barca said. "As you know, I felt from the moment they called this that this would be a violation of open meetings law. This is an important first step in this regard."
The bill was part of Walker's solution for plugging a $137 million state budget shortfall. A part of the measure would require state workers to increase their health insurance and pension contributions to save the state $30 million by July 1. Other parts of Walker's original proposal to address the budget shortfall were removed before the bill passed last week. The Legislature planned to take those up later.
A golf course in Paris Illinois closed over the winter, but the bank that took possession of it hopes to auction it off to a new owner who will have it open this spring.
The 119-acre Sycamore Hills Country Club is up for sale in an "absolute auction", which means no minimum bid. Aumann Auctions of Nokomis is handling the auction, along with the Moss Auction Team of Paris. Aumann's Kelly Hogue says First Bank and Trust of Paris approached them about selling the golf course last month --- and put the auction together unusually quickly.
"They wanted to immediately find a new owner to have the golf course ready for spring play," Hogue said. "They took the golf course back on a Monday - signing a deed in lieu --- and called us immediately. We met with them on Wednesday, had a contract on Friday. No one in the auction industry has ever heard of a bank moving that quickly."
Sycamore Hills first opened in 1920 --- the restaurant and banquet hall on the grounds opened about four years ago. Bids are being taken on the two facilities both together and separately. Hogue said the current highest bid for the golf course and restaurant combined is at around $150,000.
Hogue said the facility was opened for public inspection on Thursday, and the turnout was impressive.
"We had hundreds of people," Hogue said. "And we rented golf carts. We had people all over the course, and hundreds of people at the clubhouse, looking over the items."
The final day for bidding on the golf course and restaurant is March 29th. Bids are being taken online only, but Hogue said they will be taking bids at the golf course on March 29th. She said the new owner can take possession immediately, even before the sale is closed. While the bank is hoping that Sycamore Hills reopens for golf, Hogue said it is also zoned for residential use.
Any day now, Champaign County officials will learn if a new chemical processing plant will set up shop in the community.
Few details are being released about the facility. John Dimit, the chief executive officer of the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation, said officials from the company are reviewing seven sites in addition to Champaign County to host the plant.
"It's actually a type of facility that takes industrial waste - steel mill waste in particular - and recaptures the waste, concentrates it and re-sells it," Dimit explained.
Dimit said the chemical plant would employee around 200 people, and be located north of the community in an area ready for development. He said the company behind the project intends to invest $250 million to have it completed by 2013.
A Northwestern University journalism professor whose students are credited with helping to free more than 10 innocent men from prison has been pulled from the class that made him famous.
David Protess says he was notified by email Monday that he wouldn't be teaching the investigative journalism course for the upcoming quarter.
Protess will continue as director of the Medill Innocence Project, but he says he doesn't know whether the project will continue to be affiliated with the class.
Investigative journalism students usually conduct the project's investigations.
Cook County prosecutors have subpoenaed the notes and grades of Protess' students in connection with their investigation into an alleged wrongful conviction. And the university has been investigating Protess and the Innocence Project over allegations of ethics violations.
The Champaign County Board has ended its long-running debate on Olympian Drive.
On a 19-to-7 vote, board members settled on a plan to connect the dead-end road north of Champaign with Lincoln Avenue in Urbana, where it connects with Interstate-74. Two weeks after rejecting a 'green' option, the Board approved a 'purple' configuration of North Lincoln expected to have less of an impact on residents, cutting diagonally through property owned by Squire Farms.
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing praised the board's diligence after backing the Olympian project herself for years.
"This has thoroughly discussed," she said. "There's people around the world that want democracy. I don't know if they realize how exhausting it is, but certainly it's a better system that people have ever come up with. And I think the county board really took this seriously. And they studied it, and I think they've come to a conclusion."
Thirteen Democrats and six Republicans supported the project. Five of the seven 'no' votes came from rural Republicans, as well as Champaign Democrats Pattsi Petrie and Alan Kurtz.
The plan was approved with an amendment offered by Urbana Democrat James Quisenberry, who wanted to ensure the design didn't move any further south and east, where it could impact other residents.
"The property owners that the road goes right next to are the ones that are going to be most affected," Quisenberry said. "And they didn't really want the road there in the first place, but now that it's going there, we have to make sure they're protected as much as we can."
Prussing said the city will still work with individual landowners to alleviate any concerns as the project moves forward. She said anyone losing land will be paid for it by Champaign County or the city of Urbana, but those that do not agree would require govermment use of eminent domain for property.
The Olympian Drive portion of the project is expected to be built in 2013, with the stretch of Lincoln Avenue to be finished in 2015. The entire project is estimated at nearly $20-million, paid for through Illinois Jobs Now funding, the state motor fuel tax, and federal funds.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels says it's "sad but necessary'' for the Republican leader of the Indiana House to end negotiations with boycotting Democrats.
Daniels says the more than 30 Democrats staying in an Urbana hotel have forfeited their right to participate in the legislative session. They've been staying in Illinois since Feb. 22.
The Governor says Republican Speaker Brian Bosma has bent over "double backward'' to meet unreasonable demands from Democrats on education- and labor-related bills. But Daniels still hopes the lawmakers will return from Illinois.
"I still hope they'll do their duty and come back." he said. "They're welcome if they do, but we can't wait forever."
Bosma says the time for negotiating is over.
"Time has expired," he said. "We're now in our fourth very expensive week of an unprecendented walkout. Approaching an American record, not just an Indiana record."
Bosma and Indiana Senate Pro Tem David Long says the Senate would start hearing next week on the state budget plan that has stalled in the House during the four-week walkout. The Senate will also work on advancing other proposals without waiting for House Democrats to return. Long says the Senate has tried to stay out of the dispute, but that it's 'disingenious' for the boycotting Democrats to claim they're negotiating.
Democratic House member Win Moses of Fort Wayne said there have been good communications on those issues and that ending talks would be an arbitrary and harsh choice by Bosma. The legislative session is scheduled to end by late April, but Daniels said he was prepared to call a special session if necessary.
A health care advocates group says the findings of environmental experts from a Boneyard Creek pipeline confirm their fears about contaminants.
Champaign County Health Care Consumers brought in the researchers to investigate the old pipe that extends from the site of a former manufactured gas plant at Champaign's 5th and Hill Streets owned by Ameren. Grant Antoline, an activist with the group, said lab results confirmed there was coal tar in the pipe, and it contained organic compounds like benzene, and hydrocarbons that exceed safety standards.
"We've always been concerned that there's been some sort of dumping into the Boneyard Creek from 3 years ago when we started this campaign," Antoline said. "It's just common practice for these plants to be set up next to a waterway. But to see results of one million, 300-thousand percent higher than they should be is outrageous, and there's no excuse for not investing in the pipe when it's this serious."
Residents in the 5th and Hill neighborhood have long complained over odors in their basements, and nagging health problems. The consumer group's 60-day notice of intent to sue the city of Champaign over cleaning up the pipe will expire April 11th. Its executive director, Claudia Lennhoff, says they simply want the line capped off.
"Their part of the action should be fairly simple and straightforward in terms of the notice of intent to sue," Lennhoff said. "All that we require of them under the Clean Water Act and that notice of intent to sue is to block off the discharge into the Boneyard."
Lennhoff said the city should make Ameren pay for sealing up the pipeline. EPA Spokeswoman Maggie Carson said it is testing results from the Boneyard site have yet to be released, and Champaign city attorney Fred Stavins says the city is waiting on those results, and to find who's responsible for cleaning up the pipe.
In February, the Champaign city council recommended repealing its groundwater ordinance on a case-by-case basis. Stavins said the issue will re-surface by mid-April at the earliest.
The conservative group Americans For Prosperity says Illinois Congressman Tim Johnson needs to stay the course when it comes to balancing the federal budget.
Johnson can get the message by turning on his radio. A commercial running on Champaign-Urbana and Bloomington-Normal radio stations this month begins with the voice of the late Ronald Reagan: "You know, we could say they spend like drunken sailors. But that would be unfair to drunken sailors, because the sailors are spending their own money."
An announcer comes in to say that Reagan's words are still true today: "We cannot spend our way to prosperity. But big-government advocates are trying to convince Congressman Tim Johnson to go along with their high-tax, big-spending ways." The radio spot then goes on to urge listeners to call Congressman Johnson, and sign an online petition in favor of more federal spending cuts.
The Americans For Prosperity campaign is meant to convince Johnson, already known as a fiscal conservative, that he has the popular support to make difficult cuts in spending.
Joseph Calomino, AFP's Illinois State Director says Johnson has "voted right on many of the issues. Our theory is now, to provide those congressmen and women in the state of Illinois and throughout the country with the kind of support they need from the majority, to hear from the majority of their public to stand tall and cut spending now."
Americans For Prosperity announced their campaign Thursday at a Champaign news conference attended by representatives of other groups dedicated to lower government spending. They included Mary Lou Ferguson of the Decatur group, Citizens For Responsible Government. She says Americans largely support cuts in federal spending --- and will continue to do so when the choices get more difficult.
"That support we had last year for the election is not going away", says Ferguson. "That concern, that amount of energy and paying attention is going to grow. We just cannot sustain this. It has to be fixed."
A spokesman for Congressman Johnson says he's committed to cutting federal spending, and that the AFP campaign is "preaching to the choir". Press Secretary Phil Bloomer says Johnson has voted to reduce federal spending to 2008 levels, and voted against the latest continuing resolution to keep the federal government running --- because it didn't include sufficient spending cuts.
Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity is launching similar campaigns in a few selected congressional districts across the country.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels says it is "sad but necessary'' for the Republican leader of the Indiana House to end negotiations with boycotting Democrats.
Daniels said Thursday that Democratic representatives have forfeited their right to participation by continuing to stay in Illinois in order to block legislative action.
Daniels says Republican Speaker Brian Bosma has bent over "double backward'' to meet unreasonable demands from Democrats on education- and labor-related bills.
Democratic Rep. Win Moses of Fort Wayne said there have been good communications on those issues and that ending talks would be an arbitrary and harsh choice by Bosma.
The legislative session is scheduled to end by late April, but Daniels said he was prepared to call a special session if necessary.
Roger Ebert's Annual Film Festival opens Wednesday, April 27th, with a showing of the German science fiction film "Metropolis". Fritz Lang's silent classic has been shown at the festival before, but not in its new 2 1/2 hour restored version.
The five-day festival at Champaign's Virginia Theater will mostly feature newer movies, including "Louder Than A Bomb", a documentary tracking four Chicago-area kids preparing for a poetry slam. An appearance is scheduled by the movie's co-director, John Siskel --- a nephew of Ebert's former TV partner, the late Gene Siskel.
Other scheduled movies include "Me and Orson Welles", which dramatizes the director's early career; "Leaves of Grass" in which actor Edward Norton portrays twin brothers; and the animated "My Dog Tulip", featuring a voice performance by Christopher Plummer.
This will be the 13th year for Ebert's film festival, which highlights often-overlooked films selected by the Pulitizer-Prize winning film critic and Urbana native. Festival passes have sold out --- tickets for individual film showings go on sale April 4th.
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