Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 01, 2011

Same-Sex Couples Can Now Get Civil Union Licenses in Illinois

Just hours after Illinois lawmakers adjourned late last night, hundreds of same-sex couples across the state stood in line Wednesday morning to get a civil union license.

Illinois is the sixth state in the United States to allow for some form of civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.

For many people, like Michael Hogue of Champaign, the civil union law is a long time coming. Hogue has been with partner, Bruce Rainey, for 22 years, and they were one of the first couples to get a license Wednesday at the Champaign County Brookens Center in Urbana.

"I think we procrastinated a little, getting everything ready for this day because in the back of our minds we didn't think it would come," Rainey said. "It's astounding that we can actually be recognized for our commitment to one another and for the years that we've been together."

But not every same-sex couple who came to Brookens showed up to get a civil union license. Susan Chapman and Lori Serb say while the law marks an important landmark for gay and lesbian couples, they say there are still other goals that need to be met.

"I think it's important not to let our focus as a community get so narrow because we think this is the end goal for everyone, " Chapman said. "I think there are a lot more things that we need to continue to work on in terms of protecting people who are outside of gender norms and equal housing."

Similar to getting a marriage license, couples must have a valid form of ID and be ready to answer some basic questions. The licenses require a one-day waiting period, and are then valid for 60 days. The group Equality Illinois says every state agency is required to comply with the law, but it says churches can opt out of conducting civil unions if they choose.

Rev. Keith Harris of McKinley Memorial Presbyterian Church in Champaign said he will be performing civil union ceremonies because "we understand that God sees it that way." But Harris said he won't perform any civil union ceremonies unless couples participate in up to five sessions of counseling, either at his church or somewhere else.

"We're not just contributing to the rate of broken relationships," Harris said.

The new law gives people many significant legal protections that accompany traditional marriage. That includes the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner and the right to inherit a partner's property. In order to share insurance benefits, couples must also obtain a separate document from the county clerk proving the ceremony happened.

State Representative Greg Harris (D-Chicago), who sponsored the civil union legislation, is credited with shepherding it through the General Assembly.

"I know all kinds of couples personally," Harris said. "There are people across the state who've invited me to their ceremonies to say thanks for helping get the bill passed. I will go broke buying toasters and punch sets, I believe, if I go to all these events."

Speaking to reporters Wednesday morning, Gov. Pat Quinn praised the start of civil unions in Illinois. The Illinois Democrat signed the legislation in January. He said the law makes Illinois "a place of tolerance and welcoming to all.''

(Photo courtesy of Laura Leonard Fitch)

AP - Illinois Public Media News - June 01, 2011

Ill. Lawmakers Adjourn for the Summer

Illinois' General Assembly has officially adjourned. The House finished late Tuesday evening, followed by the Senate adjourning just after midnight. Lawmakers spent their last day of session tackling issues ranging from gambling to workers compensation.

The last minute rush of action means a heap of measures now await Governor Pat Quinn.

There's the gambling package that allows for five new casinos, including in Chicago, Danville and Rockford --- plus slots at racetracks, including Springfield's state fair grounds.

There's the legislation shepherded through by Ameren and Com Ed that upgrades the power grid and has customers pay for it in their electric bills.

And there's an overhaul of the workers' compensation system, which President of the Illinois Manufacturer's Association Greg Baise said is needed.

"It's been a bad system since 1975, really," Baise said. "It'll be an improvement for the employer community."

The General Assembly also sent Governor Quinn a budget, which cuts education and social services, and spends $2.3 billion less than Governor Quinn had asked for.

House Republican Leader Tom Cross says making the cuts wasn't easy, but resulted in a great product.

"Not only was it balanced, but it was a document that was driven from the bottom up by you as members," Cross told his fellow state representatives. "That's the way it should be. It's pretty remarkable.

Both chambers are adjourned ostensibly until October's veto session.

But there's a chance they could come back this summer, to respond if the governor vetoes any of the proposals on his desk.

Lawmakers might return to revive funding for a statewide infrastructure program, should the Illinois Supreme Court rule in a pending case that the current funding source is unconstitutional. There's also a push by the Senate Democrats to restore money cut from the budget for some social service programs.

For now, all eyes are on Quinn.

Categories: Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 31, 2011

UI President Satisfied with State Funding Proposal

University of Illinois President Michael Hogan says the state's appropriation to the school in the budget awaiting the governor's signature is 'about as close to total victory' as you can get given the climate in Springfield.

The suggested appropriation is just over $689 million, a reduction of just over one percent over what was originally planned for the U of I. Hogan says administrators once feared a hit as high 10 percent. But he said this doesn't mean the U of I is out of the woods yet, since it's owed nearly half of the current year's appropriations, or just over $310 million.

He said the next step would be looking into raises for faculty and staff.

"I'm very, very happy with the results (of the funding package)," Hogan said. "It puts us in a better position to move forward with our plans to do the first comprehensive compensation adjustment in three years. That was the main thing."

Given the figures from Springfield, Hogan said he's looking at salary adjustments of over two-percent. He said he expects to resume the battle over pension reform soon.

"The bill that was on the table - up to 20-percent of our workforce could have retired - walked right out the door," Hogan said. "And that would have been a big run up on pension costs for the state to begin with, and left us with a real headache in terms of staffing our classes, and fulfilling our research agenda, and probably would have had altogether a long-term negative effect on the state."

He testified recently in Springfield against legislation that would lower pension benefits. That bill was tabled until the fall. Hogan says he might consider his own proposal regarding pensions, but adds that's hard to say without a lot of discussions in advance.

Hogan spoke Tuesday before the U of I Trustees' Audit, Budget, Finance and Facilities Committee.

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 31, 2011

Gaming Expansion Heads to Governor Quinn, Includes Casino for Danville

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)

The Illinois Senate voted 30-27 Tuesday to approve five new casinos, including one in Danville. The others would go to Chicago, Rockford, Lake County and somewhere in the south suburbs.

The measure would also add slots at existing casinos and allow horse racing tracks to have them for the first time in what would be the largest growth in legalized wagering since its introduction in Illinois two decades ago.

The goal of the legislation is to lure gamblers back from other states and raise revenue Illinois. The idea is crucial to Illinois, which has up to $8 billion in unpaid bills, and to the Senate, which rejected a $6 billion plan Sunday to borrow money to cover the obligation, proponents say.

The measure would bring in $1.6 billion in upfront licensing fees and other payments from new casino owners, according to State Senator Terry Link (D-Waukegan). He said all would the money would go toward "paying off old debts."

Continuing new revenue would be $500 million or more annually, including tens of millions of dollars more for schools.

Tom Swoik of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association said existing casinos would lose up to 30 percent of their revenue. He said the revenue estimate is unrealistic because it assumes that current casinos, with 1,200 gambling slots apiece, will all add the 400 spots the legislation allows.

The legislation goes to Gov. Pat Quinn. The Democratic governor has said he is open to a casino in Chicago but opposes four other casinos.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he is pleased the Illinois Senate approved legislation that will allow for a casino in the city. Emanuel said a casino would "energize'' Chicago's economy and create between 7,000 to 10,000 jobs.

Meanwhile, Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer has said a casino would be a huge boost to Danville's economy, bringing in millions of dollars in additional tax revenue and resulting in up to 1,200 permanent jobs. Eisenhauer said if a casino works in Chicago, there is no reason other communities shouldn't get one.

Categories: Business, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 31, 2011

Champaign Firm Recalls RC Helicopters for Blade Hazard

Champaign-based Horizon Hobby is recalling nearly 18,000 remote-controlled model helicopters sold under one of its own brands in the U-S and Canada.

The U-S Consumer Product Safety Commission and Health Canada announced the recall Tuesday.

The products pose a hazard, because the main rotor blades and blade grips can fly off from the rotor head, and pose an impact or laceration hazard. Hoirzon Hobby has received 312 reports of the rotor blades flying off the rotor head. There have been 34 reports of the blades striking someone, including 12 lacerations.

The voluntary recall affects the Blade Bind-N-Fly Helicopter (Model # BLH3580) and Ready to Fly Helicopter (Model # BLH3500), and the Main Blade Grips replacement parts (Model # BLH3514).

The CPSC says consumers should contact Horizon Hobby for free replacement parts and directions. Horizon Hobby has set up a recall hot-line at 877-504-0233.

Categories: Business, Health

AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 31, 2011

Blagojevich Denies He Used State Action to Force Donations

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, testifying for a third day at his federal corruption trial, disputed prosecution claims that he tried to leverage state action for campaign donations.

Race track bill

Guided by his attorney, Aaron Goldstein, Blagojevich provided his defense to government charges that he tried to get campaign donations in 2008 by withholding his signature from a bill that would benefit the horse race track industry.

Prosecutors had played secretly-taped conversations between Blagojevich and his former chief of staff, Lon Monk, who was working as a lobbyist for the industry. The government alleges Blagojevich and Monk were trying to squeeze money from the racetrack-owning Johnston family in exchange for signing the legislation.

In his testimony Tuesday, Blagojevich said he had a couple reasons - entirely legal ones - for withholding his signature on the bill. First, he said he wanted to consider the legislation as part of his broader plan to use his amendatory veto power, what he called his "Rewrite to do right campaign."

Second, Blagojevich said he was nervous that he would sign the bill around the same time that a campaign donation from the Johnstons would arrive. He said he believed the donation was "imminent" based on his conversations with Monk, and didn't want there to be a perception that he signed the bill because of the money. He noted he'd been "stung" by a similar allegation in the past.

Tollway construction

Also Tuesday, Blagojevich addressed accusations that he tried to shake down road construction bigwig Gerald Krozel, by holding back approval for a major tollway project. The ex-governor, in his testimony, sought to provide another reason for his reluctance to move forward with expansion: that he was trying to get the legislature to approve with a much larger statewide construction plan, known as the capital bill.

The defense played a secretly recorded conversation between Blagojevich and his chief of staff at the time, John Harris. In it, they talked about a request from then-DuPage County Board Chair Bob Schillerstrom to include a western access road to O'Hare Airport in the tollway plan. Blagojevich scoffed at the request, as he wanted Schillerstrom to use his political heft to pressure House Speaker Mike Madigan to call for a vote on the larger capital bill.

That recording included several expletives from Blagojevich, which the ex-governor addressed on the stand.

"You had to pick one of me swearing, eh?" he asked his attorney. Then, to the jury, "I'm sorry again about that language."

The former governor also discussed a meeting he had with Krozel at his campaign offices. Krozel testified that at this meeting he felt Blagojevich was linking campaign donations and the expanded tollway plan, which would provide obvious benefits to Krozel's industry.

Blagojevich acknowledged both topics came up at the meeting. He said he talked to Krozel about a new ethics law, which restricted political donations from state contractors beginning on January 1, 2009.

"The good news for you and bad news for me is you can't contribute money to me anymore," Blagojevich recalled telling Krozel. "This is your last hurrah."

Blagojevich denied threatening or demanding that Krozel fundraise for him. He said the construction executive told him he wanted to help.

Blagojevich's team has yet to address the most headline-grabbing allegations against their client. He is accused of trying to personally profit from his power to fill the U.S. Senate seat that President Barack Obama vacated in late 2008.

Children's hospital

Blagojevich testifed Tuesday that "whenever a baseball manager calls me...I call them back." Such was the case when former Cubs manager Dusty Baker called Blagojevich in 2008 to ask him to help out Children's Memorial Hospital. The hospital's executive ended up asking Blagojevich to push through a Medicaid reimbursement rate increase for pediatricians.

Budget times were tight, but Blagojevich said he agreed. The governor said he told his deputy governor, Bob Greenlee, to get it done. He said Greenlee eventually told him he'd found the money to make it happen, effective after January 1, 2009.

Prosecutors allege Blagojevich was trying to get fundraising help from Patrick Magoon, and actually ordered the rate increase be put on hold when Magoon resisted. Blagojevich dismissed that claim, noting that he thought the rate increase was set. "My state of mind was it was done," he testified.

Blagojevich says the hospital was "a personal place" for him because a cousin died there in the 1960s.

Blagojevich's binder blunder

Shortly after Blagojevich began testifying Tuesday morning, the judge halted the proceedings and sent the jury out of the room because the ex-governor's microphone kept going on-and-off. Court staff soon discovered the problem: Blagojevich's binder, containing transcripts of wiretaps, "was resting on the on-and-off switch."

"You got to watch that binder, Rod," Goldstein told his client after the jury returned.

"Evidently it was my fault," replied Blagojevich.

Past conviction

Blagojevich has denied all wrongdoing since his arrest on December 9, 2008. Less than two months later, he was impeached and removed from office by the Illinois General Assembly. Since then, he's waged a very public campaign, declaring his innocence at every turn. He hosted a radio show on a local station, appeared in Celebrity Apprentice and acted as a pitchman for pistachios.

Blagojevich faces 20 federal charges, including wire fraud, attempted extortion, conspiracy to commit extortion, bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery. This is the ex-governor's second trial, after a different jury last summer deadlocked on all but one count. It found him guilty of lying to federal investigators, a charge that carries a maximum of 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Goldstein briefly asked Blagojevich about that conviction on Tuesday. The ex-governor acknowledged he was found guilty, and said Judge James Zagel is responsible for sentencing him. Goldstein then told Blagojevich he would move on to another subject, to which the defendant replied, "Please do."

Making faces

When the jury was out of the courtroom on a break, Blagojevich attorney Lauren Kaesberg told Judge Zagel that she has witnessed prosecutors making faces and engaging in "animated discussion" that jurors were noticing.

Prosecutor Reid Schar denied this, and Zagel said he had not noticed it.

The government made a similar complaint about Blagojevich during the first trial.

There were only 17 jurors listening to testimony today, down one from the standard of 18. It is not uncommon for one or two jurors to withdraw during a trial. It can sometime happen for health or personal reasons.

(AP Photo/Tom Gianni)

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 31, 2011

Ill. Senate Approves Congressional Map

(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)

The Democrat-controlled Illinois Senate has approved new congressional districts that try to erase Republicans election gains.

The 34-25 vote Tuesday sends the map to Gov. Pat Quinn.

Illinois must adopt a congressional map with 18, instead of 19, U.S. House seats because the latest census showed slowing population growth in the state. Democrats are in charge of the once-a-decade redistricting process because they control the state Legislature and governor's office. That gives them the chance to put freshmen Republicans into unfriendly districts.

The new districts must conform to State and Federal law that requires minority rights be protected. Republicans say their Democratic counterparts did not do enough for minority voters.

"I'm sure it will be challenged especially by the Latino groups of this state who are essentially shut out for the next ten years," State Senator Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale) said, who cited the single Latino district in the new map

But State Senator Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) defended the map.

"But every Latino advocacy group that we heard from, none have advocated for a second Latino Congressional district," Raoul said.

The voting rights angle is likely to be the best way to get a map overturned. Previous attempts based on a district's shape and partisan make-up haven't held up in front of the state Supreme Court.

The proposed map lumps at least four freshman Republicans and one veteran into districts where they would have to run against other incumbents for the next election. They would be forced to compete in primaries, contend in Democrat-friendly districts or find another district to run in to try to keep a seat in Congress. The map includes two open districts where it appears no current member of Congress lives.

A pair of downstate Congressional districts see a shake up in this latest version of the Democrat-drawn boundaries.

Republican Congressmen Tim Johnson of Urbana and Collinsville's John Shimkus find their new districts swapped from what was unveiled last week. Shimkus' new territory would cover a large swath of Eastern and Southern Illinois and is considered to favor the GOP incumbent. Johnson's home would be included in a district that picks up Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, Bloomington and Springfield. Johnson's proposed district even dips down to the Metro East area near St. Louis.

Both Johnson and Shimkus declined an immediate request for comment.

State Senator Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) said he believes Republicans likely challenge the new congressional district map in court. But Frerichs defends the new map as being fair and more compact than the old one, and he said he's not concerned about changes that put Johnson in one district, and many of his longtime constituents in another.

"Well, I think I had heard some of Tim's comments about 'his constituents,'" Frerichs said. "I would just remind him that he doesn't own any constituents. He serves the people of Illinois. And I think that's fair to say."

Frerichs discounted charges that Democrats intentionally designed the new congressional maps hurt Republicans' changes for re-election. He said the map was designed with an eye on more factors than protecting incumbents.

State Senator Dale Righter (R-Mattoon) denounced what he calls a backroom mapmaking process. Righter said the Democrats should be ashamed.

"This is yet another insider game designed to protect people who are in power right now," Righter said. "That's exactly the wrong way to conduct this process. It's the wrong reason to approve a map."

But Democrats say they listened to public input and considered minority voting rights when drawing the new map.

Despite the map's passage, an almost certain court challenge faces the Democrats who drew it.

Categories: Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 31, 2011

Urbana Resident Prepares for Humanitarian Trip to Gaza Strip

Today marks the one-year anniversary of a raid led by Israeli marines that claimed the lives of nine Turkish activists attempting to bring aid to the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli government has maintained a naval blockade on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip since 2007, citing concerns that whatever is sent to the Palestinian territory could be used by Hamas to attack Israel.

About 10 flotillas will attempt to bring another round of aid to Gaza in June. One of those vessels will include Urbana resident Robert Naiman, who is with the advocacy group, Just Foreign Policy.

"While there is real physical suffering that's coming to Palestinians in Gaza under the blockade, like being for example prevented from accessing medical care in Jerusalem," Naiman said. "There is a feeling of isolation and that the world doesn't care about us, and that we want to counteract."

Naiman said while many of the vessels will carry humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, he said there are restrictions on what Americans can bring to the Gaza Strip since Hamas is seen as a terrorist organization. For his part, Naiman is bringing a comic book illustrating examples of non-violent resistance in American history.

"This comic book has been translated into Arabic, and starting in 2009 was distributed in places like Egypt, so that some of the people who were in Tahrir Square were aware of this story of Martin Luther King and the successful non-violent struggle against segregation in the United States," he explained.

He said the comic book is relevant following recent examples non-violent efforts that have successfully overthrown the governments of Tunisia and Egypt.

Israel has vowed to stop any attempt to breach its sea blockade of Gaza.

Categories: Biography, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 31, 2011

Credibility of Government’s Top Witness Questioned in Mumbai Terror Case

Defense attorneys for a Chicago businessman accused in the 2008 Mumbai attacks are trying to undermine the credibility of an admitted terrorist who is serving as the government's star witness.

David Coleman Headley returns to the witness stand Tuesday to face questions from defense attorneys for Tahawwur Rana. He's accused of helping Headley, his longtime friend, lay the groundwork for the attacks that left more than 160 people dead in in India's largest city.

Headley has already pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Rana, who is accused of providing a cover as Headley conducted surveillance for the attacks.

Rana's attorneys say Headley's testimony isn't credible because he's lied in the past. They went after his credibility last week, and told a judge they're just getting started. Headley has already pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Rana, who is accused of providing a cover as Headley conducted surveillance for the attacks.

Rana's attorneys say Headley's testimony isn't credible because he's lied in the past. They went after his credibility last week, and told a judge they're just getting started.

AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 31, 2011

Ill. Senate Approves Cuts to Governor Quinn’s Budget Plan

It happened without much fanfare, but the deed is done. Governor Pat Quinn is being presented with a budget that cuts $2.3 billion from the one he proposed in February.

The measure reduces school funding, it whacks state support for child care, and decreases Medicaid funding for the poor. It also gives three percent less to education for the coming year that begins in July.

The measure had earlier passed the House with bipartisan support, but it barely made it through the Senate with heavy criticism from that chamber's GOP contingent for not cutting enough.

Senate Democrats, worried about the effects of some of the cuts, voted in a separate measure, to restore about $430 million to programs, like meals on wheels for seniors and free lunch for low-income schoolchildren.

"The fact is, there are services in there for people who are the most vulnerable in our state," Senator Dan Kotowski (D-Park Ridge) said. "They're aged, disabled. They need services. Transitional housing for homeless people."

House Democrat Marlow Colvin of Chicago said a long day of negotiations is ahead on Tuesday to see if the House will agree with that proposal

"It's going to be quite a lesson in budget making in Springfield, Illinois," Colvin said. "Something we haven't seen in a long time."

Another unknown is how Governor Quinn will react to the budget cuts, which he has spoken out against. He can veto the budget, or specific parts of it, but he does not have power to add money.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

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