Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 24, 2011

Illinois to Online, Out-of-State Shoppers: Pay Up

Illinois tax collectors have a message for residents who skirt sales taxes online and out of state: Start paying up.

The cash-strapped state will step up enforcement this year of the decades-old "use tax," which applies to many items bought online or in another state. Officials have added reminders on this year's paper and online tax forms about the tax.

The state has made a recent push to collect sales taxes from retailers like Amazon.com Inc. and Overstock.com Inc., approving a law this month that led both companies to drop affiliates in the state.

But Susan Hofer, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Revenue, says auditors will target "big ticket" purchases, like boats sold in Florida, over smaller purchases online.

"If you go online and buy a book on Amazon, it's your conscience that you have to live with," Hofer said.

The tax applies to any purchases made with a sales tax rate lower than Illinois' 6.25 percent, to protect in-state retailers that charge the tax.

For shoppers who didn't keep their receipts, the state has published a list of suggested "use tax" amounts based on income: $15 for people who made $20,000 last year, $27 for people making $50,000, and $52 for people making $100,000.

That's not including taxes on major purchases like boats or cars.

Residents can also pay back taxes on purchases as far back as 2004, thanks to state law passed last year.

The revenue department estimates that Internet shopping could have generated $153 million last year if online retailers were taxed at the state rate. Illinois lawmakers have tried to collect from Amazon and others, which say they shouldn't pay taxes in the state because they don't have offices there.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill this month that charges sales taxes on online purchases made through Illinois affiliates of online companies. That led to Amazon announcing it would end its relationships with state affiliates.

Hofer acknowledged the difficulty revenue auditors face with online shopping.

"How would I or one of our enforcers know if you went home every night and spent five hours shopping on Amazon?" she said.

The state won't have statistics on how many residents will pay until the end of tax season, Hofer said. But interviews with accountants suggest most people either haven't made untaxed purchases or aren't reporting them.

"I've had one client out of 300 volunteer to pay it," said Julie Herwitt, a Chicago accountant. She said she believes most of her clients don't know the tax exists.

At the Bird Armour LLC accounting firm in Springfield, fewer than 5 percent of the 350 returns finished so far have made "use tax" payments, managing member Michael K. Armour said.

"I must admit that I am surprised at the number of people that have come forward," he said.

Last year, the state collected an estimated $4 million to $6 million from the tax. The department hopes that will double this year, Hofer said.

"We expect that people will pay what they owe, recognizing this is part of their responsibility as a citizen," she said.

(Photo courtesy of Rob Lee/Flickr)


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 24, 2011

U of I Board Hears Comments But Takes No Action On Wind Turbine

University of Illinois trustees have put off action on an Urbana campus wind turbine for at least three months, but speakers on both sides of the issue told trustees at their meeting in Springfield Wednesday they would prefer a quick decision.

For civil engineering student Amy Allen, the decision should be "yes". Allen, who is also president of Students for Environmental Concerns on the Urbana campus, told trustees that any further delay would just run up the cost for the wind turbine --- and perhaps kill the project entirely. She wants trustees to approve the wind turbine for its original site at South Farms.

"Re-siting the turbine and seeking an extension would kill the project," Allen said. "We ask that you approve the wind turbine at the next meeting of the board of trustees in June, or abandon it entirely, instead of consigning it to death by a thousand cuts."

But abandonment would be just fine for U of I faculty member Steven Platt. He told trustees that even if a site is found that won't disturb nearby homeowners, wind turbines are no longer on the cutting edge of energy technology.

"There are hundreds of large turbines in Illinois, thousands across the country," Platt said. "The time, if ever there was one, to erect what will amount to be a five-million-dollar symbol is long in the past."

A U of I board of trustees committee has decided to give the wind turbine project further study --- it could come up at the board's next meeting on June 9th in Chicago.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 24, 2011

University Mistakenly Sends Out Alert

A University of Illinois alert Thursday morning indicating that there was a shooter on campus was sent out in error, according to University officials.

The alert sent out at about 10:40 AM told the university community to "Escape area if safe to do so or shield/secure your location." Within about 15 minutes, Illini-Alert sent out a follow-up email saying that message was sent out in error. The U of I says a worker updating an emergency-message template inadvertently sent the message rather than saving it.

In a statement, the University's Chief of Police Barbara O'Connor said: "PLEASE DISREGARD THE ILLINI-ALERT MESSAGE SENT REGARDING THE ACTIVE SHOOTER ON CAMPUS! The Illini-Alert message was sent accidentally. We sincerely apologize for this accident."

U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler says employees at the campus' information technology service were working on ways to upgrade the alert system in light of Wednesday's fire in Campustown.

"Workers were simply updating some of the emergency templates that we have on hand for such incidents," she said. "And in the process of typing, someone accidentally hit 'send' instead of 'save."

Kaler said she realizes the original message was a frightening thing, but she said she would rather receive an alert of something not happening, than for an incident to go unreported.

MESSAGE ABOUT THE MISTAKEN ALERT

To the campus community:

This morning at 10:40, an Illini-Alert message was sent to 87,000 email addresses and cellphones indicating there was an active shooter or threat of an active shooter on the Urbana campus. The message was sent accidentally while pre-scripted templates used in the Illini-Alert system were being updated. The updates were being made in response to user feedback in order to enhance information provided in the alerts.

The alert sent today was caused by a person making a mistake. Rather than pushing the SAVE button to update the pre-scripted message, the person pushed the SUBMIT button. We are working with the provider of the Illini-Alert service to implement additional security features in the program to prevent this type of error.

The alert system is designed to send all messages as quickly as possible. The messages generally leave the sending server within two minutes. This design is essential for emergency communications. However, this prevented the cancellation of the erroneous alert once it was sent.

Additionally, once we send an emergency message, we are dependent on the cellular telephone providers to deliver the text message to the owner of the cellphone. This is a recognized issue with all text-messaging systems. This is one reason we use multiple communication mechanisms, including email and our Emergency Web alert system, which is automatically activated when we send an Illini-Alert message. We cannot rely solely on text messages to inform our community of an emergency.

The Chief of Police has charged the campus emergency planning office with reviewing and documenting todays incident. We are reviewing comments we are receiving as a result of the incident and will implement all reasonable and appropriate ideas or suggestions.

We recognize the campus community relies on us to provide accurate and timely emergency information. We are working diligently to improve our processes so that this type of incident does not happen again. Finally, we apologize for the confusion and emotional distress caused by the initial alert.

Respectfully,

Barbara R. O'Connor, J.D. Executive Director of Public Safety Chief of Police University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign http://www.publicsafety.illinois.edu

Mike Corn Chief Privacy and Security Officer Office of the Chief Information Officer This mailing approved by:The Office of the Chief of Police


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 24, 2011

Raw Audio of the Champaign School Board Candidate Forum

The five candidates running for four seats on the Champaign School Board took part in a forum sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They are board school members Susan Grey, Greg Novak and Kristine Chalifoux, and newcomers Jamar Brown and Lynn Stuckey. The candidates evaluate the current curriculum and efforts to improve graduation rates, and they suggest changes to the No Child Left Behind law.

(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)

Download mp3 file

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 23, 2011

Indiana House Leaders Meet Amid Democratic Boycott

The leader of the boycotting Indiana House Democrats returned to the Statehouse on Wednesday for what he called a "very positive" meeting with Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma.

Mr. Bosma met with House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer (D., South Bend) behind closed doors after the two attended another meeting with Senate leaders. Messrs. Bosma and Bauer both characterized the talk as positive. Though it didn't immediately end the month-long standoff, Mr. Bosma said it seemed like a step forward.

"It's possibly the beginning of the end," Mr. Bosma said. "It's a positive step that he returned to the Statehouse. I think that's great."

Mr. Bauer described the discussion as a positive exchange of ideas over bills, mainly one changing the regulations covering wages and other matters for workers on government construction projects.

"We've had a pretty good talk with each other," Mr. Bauer said before driving back to Illinois, where most Democrats are staying during the boycott.

Mr. Bosma (R., Indianapolis) said he would talk to the author of the government projects bill Thursday about ideas Mr. Bauer suggested. Mr. Bauer said he would talk to his caucus after hearing back from Mr. Bosma on that bill.

Mr. Bauer said it was likely impractical for Democrats to return to the House floor on Thursday because of the lateness of the meeting and the need to discuss the issues with other House members.

Before Messrs. Bauer and Bosma talked privately, they met with Senate leaders Republican David Long and Democrat Vi Simpson on a separate legal issue. Ms. Simpson described the meeting as cordial and said there was no hostility among the leaders.

"It's always a good sign when people talk," Ms. Simpson said.

The House Democrats left for Urbana, Ill., on Feb. 22 in protest of Republican-backed education and labor bills. Among them is the government projects bill. That measure, as currently written, would increase the point at which projects were exempt from the state's prevailing construction wage law from $150,000 to $1 million and remove school districts and state universities from its requirements.

After the bill became the focus of Democrats' objections, its sponsor offered to lower that level-first to $500,000 and now to $350,000-and delete the school and university exemptions.

Mr. Bauer declined to say whether Democrats asked for the level to be lowered even further and did not outline other specific changes he wanted made to the bill.

Mr. Bosma said Democrats are "looking for as much moderation in that bill as can be tolerated."

Mr. Bauer's unannounced Statehouse trip Wednesday was a stark contrast from a visit earlier this month when photographers greeted Mr. Bauer in the parking lot. Reporters gathered inside for that meeting and watched from the doorways of Mr. Bosma's office as he and Mr. Bauer and six other lawmakers talked about proposals. Those discussions did not resolve the standoff.

When asked why he took a more secretive approach to Wednesday's meeting, Mr. Bauer said: "We're trying to bring peace.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 23, 2011

Dewitt County Board to Discuss Toxin Storage Proposal

The Dewitt County Board meets Thursday night at 7 PM to consider public reaction over a measure by the Peoria Disposal Company to store a chemical substance in the Clinton Landfill known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

The Clinton Landfill is owned by Area Disposal of Peoria, and in 2007 the landfill applied for permits with the Illinois and United States Environmental Protection Agency to store the toxins. The state branch of the EPA has already granted the landfill a permit, and U.S. EPA issued a draft permit.

While the U.S. EPA considers granting an official permit, the agency will hear comments on April 13 at Clinton High School about the public's response to putting toxins in the landfill. A report commissioned by the Dewitt County Board finds storing PCBs would present "a significant long-term threat" to groundwater resources in DeWitt County.

The county board may vote to present that information to the EPA during the public hearing next month. But Board Chair Melonie Tilley says that may not happen because of an agreement with Peoria Disposal stating that the board would not take a stance to "oppose or support" issuing a federal permit to the landfill.

That doesn't sit well with DeWitt resident George Wissmiller, who heads the environmental group, WATCH. Wissmiller says he does not want to see toxins stored in the landfill.

"It's going to be separated from the Mahomet Aquifer by three sheets of plastic, three feet of clay, and then an unknown number of feet of soil of unknown composition," Wissmiller explained. "All the studies I've ever seen have said that that protection will eventually fail."

Wissmiller said the DeWitt County Board has stayed neutral on the landfill PCB issue, and that sending the report to the federal EPA hearing would be a notable step for them.

The EPA banned most uses of PCBs in 1979, but they are extraordinarily persistent and can remain in the environment for a long time.

Categories: Energy, Health, Science

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 23, 2011

Major Fire Affects Businesses, Residents in Campustown

Updated at 6:36m

A fire in the 600 block of East Green Street in Champaign has heavily damaged at least one building and affected a half-block of buildings in the heart of the Campustown area.

The fire led to a partial collapse of the roof above Zorba's restaurant. Structures affected most by the fire include an office for the U of I's department Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Pitaya clothing store, Mia Za's Cafe, and Zorba's restaurant.The fire brought out more than a dozen emergency vehicles from both Champaign and Urbana, as thick smoke could be seen around the twin cities. Smoke damage also affected the adjacent Freestar Bank branch and nearby apartments.

Matt Mortenson has worked at Zorba's for nearly 30 years and owns the business. Mortenson spotted smoke coming out of the apartment above Pitaya at around 7:35 this morning. He said he noticed flames shooting 20 to 30 feet in the air, but he doesn't know badly his business was damaged.

"You don't know whether to laugh or cry about it," Mortenson said. "If it wasn't burned, there's a lot of water damage I'm sure."

Urbana Fire Chief Mike Dilley said a fire in a concealed space at the top of the building burned "fairly undetectably" for some time. He said that in the space housing Zorba's, the roof and sections of the floor had collapsed into the first floor, but that the first floor was still intact.

Dan Davis is a web developer for Illinois Public Media, and he lives right next to the building that burned Wednesday morning. Davis said he was asleep as the fire broke out next door.

"I heard a few minutes before a commotion outside, which I ignored like I often do," Davis said. "The next thing I know, there was a firefighter kicking my bed, telling me that it's not a drill and I got to get out immediately"

Davis said he was able to grab some computer equipment before he got out of the building, which he says had already partially filled with smoke. He noted that he was the only occupant inside his building - everyone else was either on spring break or at work.

Champaign Fire Department spokeswoman Dena Schumacher said both departments did a terrific job containing the blaze to one building.

"When we got on the scene, there was smoke crossing Green Street," she said. "That doesn't happen very often."

Schuamacher said the city will follow the recommendation of a structural engineer, who said that part of the building was too unsafe after sustaining heavy fire, water, and smoke damage. The area of the building to be removed consists of a dining area for Mia Za's Cafe, and a small unoccupied apartment. Schmachuer said removing that floor could happen Thursday.

The 600 block of East Green Street remains closed to traffic overnight.

(Photo courtesy of John Paul)

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Categories: Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 23, 2011

UI Board of Trustees Approve Tuition Hike

Tuition is going up again at the University of Illinois. New students will pay more starting in the fall.

The U of I's Board of Trustees approved a 6.9 percent tuition hike for the next school year, but President Michael Hogan prefers to look at it over a four year span. He says with a state law that locks in the tuition rate over that time, incoming students will actually pay 2.7 percent annually which is closer to the rate of inflation. Hogan says the tuition hike was necessary.

"Without a tuition increase we would be short another $22 million," Hogan said. "It would be very hard to staff our classes and keep class sizes the way they are."

But others, like Trustee Tim Koritz, voiced concerns about the increasing cost of higher education.

"We have to keep in mind every time we raise tuition," Koritz said. "We may be pricing certain potential students out of the ability to attend our university."

Board chairman Chris Kennedy said he doesn't want to see the U of I be just for elite families. University leaders point out half of all students don't pay any tuition because of financial aid. The U of I is still owed about $450 million from the state government, and officials expect state funding to be reduced again in the next year.

Hogan said cost cutting will continue. Trustees raised the possibility of more consolidation within the U of I system, including academic programs. Hogan said he wants to see the first pay raise for employees in three years, but offered no specifics.

Based on the tuition increase, new students at the Urbana-Champaign campus will pay $11,104 next fall; Chicago students will pay $9,764; Springfield students will pay $8,670. Those figures don't include fees or room and board, all of which will also go up in the fall.

Categories: Economics, Education

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 23, 2011

Panel Backs Ind. Gay Marriage Ban Amendment

A proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions in Indiana is on its way to the state Senate.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the amendment on a 7-3 party line vote Wednesday, with Republican senators rejecting arguments that language prohibiting civil unions could threaten the ability of employers to offer domestic partner benefits.

Amendment sponsor Sen. Dennis Kruse of Auburn says the measure isn't meant to affect any benefits offered by companies and he doesn't believe that it would.

Current state law bans gay marriage.

The Republican-led House approved the amendment last month before the Democratic boycott began. If the measure passes the Legislature this year, it must pass again in 2013 or 2014 to go before voters on the 2014 ballot.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 22, 2011

Johnson: US Libya Involvement Unconstitutional

The congressman representing east-central Illinois is vehemently against any US involvement in the deepening conflict in Libya.

Even before the United Nations Security Council approved a no-fly zone over the country, 15th district Republican Tim Johnson had voiced opposition to sending American troops there. Now, he says Congress should try to defund the effort after voting to ease the nation's budget deficit.

"Now we face the very clear reality of eliminating all those cuts with the additional amount of money we're going to expend on an incursion into a part of the world that doesn't threaten America -- that is number one -- number two is clearly an unconstitutional action, and number three is very unwise public policy,"Johnson said.

Johnson said Congress has been in recess, so it hasn't come up with any response to President Obama's decision to send warplanes over Libya. In fact, Johnson accuses Obama of deliberately waiting until the recess to take action.

The congressman said American troops should not be anywhere that does not affect US interests, including Iraq or Afghanistan.

Categories: Government, Politics
Tags: government

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