A library grows in Springfield
Construction of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum will begin with groundbreaking ceremonies in downtown Springfield on Lincoln's Birthday, February 12. When the project is complete in 2003, visitors will be treated to all things Lincoln, including a virtual experience of the 16th president's story through a $2 million 3-D projection system underwritten by Ameritech.
Virtually everything you always wanted to know about Abraham Lincoln
With groundbreaking for the new Abraham Lincoln presidential library this month, you may want to brush up on your Lincoln trivia. An easy-to-use, informative site about Lincoln - packed with factoids, personal accounts of historical events and photographs of the 16th president, his family and people he knew - is the Abraham Lincoln Research site at http://members.aol.com/RVSNorton/Lincoln2.html. It was created and is maintained by Roger Norton, who taught middle school in Downers Grove for 28 years before retiring to Florida and starting this project. Norton documents all of his sources, making this a trustworthy site for students and Lincoln buffs. The site is designed around pages filled with intriguing tidbits of Lincoln trivia, from his favorite poem to his dog Fido; however, it primarily focuses on Lincoln's assassination and Mary Todd Lincoln. It also includes an extensive list of links to other Lincoln sites.
A more off-beat Lincoln site is http://www.ang-amheritage.com. It is based in Hingham, England, which boasts of being the home of Samuel Lincoln, Abraham's great-great-great-great grandfather, who emigrated to Hingham, Mass., in 1637. The town has several connections to Americans in its history, including airmen who were stationed there during World War II. The town is even building a 57-acre woodland park to commemorate the many historical links with the United States.
Lincoln sat here - maybe
A desk that may have been one Abraham Lincoln used when he served as a state representative at the Old State Capitol has been returned. William Hughes Diller Jr. of Springfield donated the desk to the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. He also donated a chair from the family drugstore, a place Lincoln is said to have visited often.
The preservation agency is conducting tests to determine whether Lincoln wrote his name in pencil in one of the drawers, as claimed by a previous owner.
"So far we haven't found any evidence of a signature," says agency spokesman David Blanchette. However, he says the conservators are carefully removing paper stuck to the bottom of the drawers."We can prove [the desk] was in the Old State Capitol when Lincoln served there."
Lincoln was a state representative from 1834 to 1841. The Old State Capitol, located in Springfield's city square and now a state historic site, was the seat of Illinois government from 1839 to 1876. The desk was sold at auction when the Capitol was redecorated from 1847 to 1848. The Diller family acquired the desk in 1890 and for the past 35 years had loaned it to the Lincoln College Museum for display.
Private schools in line for Illinois First money
Democratic State Sen.Vince Demuzio of Carlinville was on the Blackburn College campus a couple of months back to announce the awarding of a $2.4 million Illinois First grant for the construction of a new student center.
Blackburn is one of several private schools and universities that have received the taxpayer-funded grants for the state's infrastructure, school buildings and social programs. But the move to award public grants to private schools has raised controversy. "It looks like some of these grants are a little questionable," says Timothy Bramlet, president of the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois.
Dave Comerford, a spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, is more pointed. He worries that Illinois First grants could become a "back door way to give public money to private schools [through the budget process]," a move his group considers unconstitutional. "We would prefer that public dollars be used to fund our public schools and universities. We have even greater concern if public dollars are being used to fund private schools for grades K-12."
But Dave Tretter, vice president of the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities, says the legislature, in making these grants, is acknowledging a public interest in keeping private schools viable: "If you had to duplicate the services provided [by private colleges], could the state afford to build 'X' amount of public institutions? Of course the answer is 'no.'"
Bramlet allows that it's hard to make a blanket statement for or against these grants. "A lot of it depends on what it's used for ... the lion's share goes toward the purposes they are intended," he says. And a survey of Illinois First grants from the Illinois First Web site at http://www.state.il.us/state/ilfirst/ and press releases from the governor's office reveals that public schools and colleges get most of the Illinois First dollars earmarked for education. Still, at least 23 private schools across the state have scored grants. They include:
- Arie Crown Hebrew Day School, Skokie, got $25,000 for salaries and supplies for a special education program.
- Barat College, Lake Forest, got $125,000 for graduate level art education classes for elementary schoolteachers.
- Benedictine University, Lisle, got $3.1 million for a "library of the future" and classroom facilities.
- Bradley University, Peoria, got $300,000 to wire university-owned apartments to provide residents with access to the campus community's computer network.
- Columbia College, Chicago, got $500,000 to remodel the first floor of the Ludington building.
- Concordia University, River Forest, got $200,000 for a new track and stadium.
- Elmhurst College, Elmhurst, got $1 million for infrastructure improvements.
- Greenville College, Greenville, got four grants totaling $255,000 to upgrade network and telecommunications infrastructure.
- Holy Name of Mary Elementary School, Chicago, got $125,000 for 21 new computers, software and computer training.
- North Central College, Naperville, got $500,000 for improvements to its library and stadium.
- Quincy University, Quincy, got $500,000 to renovate Memorial Gymnasium.
- Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine, Chicago, got $300,000 for technology upgrades and integrating computers into the classroom.
- Trinity High School, River Forest, got two grants totaling $60,000 for a computer network.
Rodd Whelpley and Ryan Reeves
Election fiasco hits home
The State Board of Elections called for restoration of the defunct Election Laws Commission, and, in light of the national dilemma sparked by Florida's difficulty in counting its presidential ballots, lawmakers are expected to debate election reforms.
More than a decade ago, Illinois had an elections commission, but it was abolished by the legislature along with several other commissions, says Daniel Hagan, the election board's legislative liaison. He believes a reinstituted commission with representatives from both legislative chambers, both major political parties, local elections officials and the public could come to consensus on reform.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are tossing a few of their own proposals into the hopper. Rep. Mike Boland, an East Moline Democrat who chaired the House Election and Campaign Reform Committee in the 91st General Assembly, has a long list. He would:
- Abolish the so-called butterfly ballot, which lists candidate information on right and left pages. The butterfly ballot was used in Cook County for the circuit court judicial retention race, though it differed from the much-maligned Florida ballot. In Cook County, each race was listed from top to bottom, rather than left to right.
- Provide financial help to election jurisdictions that want to exchange punch-card balloting for an electronic system.
- Specify which chads can be counted.
- Establish an automatic recount. Meanwhile, other lawmakers have suggested requiring a uniform statewide electronic voting system.
Election reform is an issue throughout the country. Only four states have uniform systems. In every other state, procedures vary from county to county just as they do in Florida, says Bill Wyatt, public affairs officer for the National Conference of State Legislatures. That group charged a task force with identifying "best practices" in the states and offering technical assistance to those that are putting reforms into action.
Maureen Foertsch McKinney
CHECKING ON THE NEIGHBORS
State legislatures gavel into session
Across the nation, state officials are nervously tracking a slowing economy. As a result, fewer states are considering tax refunds this year, which may indicate a shift in the six-year trend, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. States have cut $33 billion in taxes during that period. But 20 states report their legislatures are considering tax cuts this year, down from 31 last year.
Meanwhile, legislatures are in the midst of metamorphosis. More than 1,300 new lawmakers will be sworn in this year and at least 30 House speakers or Senate presidents will be new to the job, the national conference reports. These newcomers, along with their more experienced colleagues, will be asked to tackle redistricting, a politically contentious once-a-decade chore. In the coming months, the two main political parties will struggle for control of the nation's 7,424 legislative districts.
But there's more. A number of substantive issues will be debated in statehouses, too, including sales tax reform, land use, prescription drug costs, abortion and the hazards posed by distracted drivers.
Sales tax reform
This is expected to be a hot topic in legislatures throughout the country.
The debate will center on ways to simplify and unify states' tax structures. By early January, 30 states had agreed to participate in the Streamlined Sales Tax Project, which was initiated last March. Countless discrepancies exist among states' taxing systems, and among states and their municipalities.
But the major sticking point is the growing impact of cybercommerce. Sales taxes provide revenue streams for 45 states, which have complained that untaxed Internet sales have been eating into dollars generated by traditional commercial outlets. Four states, Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin, have agreed to launch a pilot program that includes an online tax calculation.
Meanwhile, fewer states than last year will consider sales tax refunds, though Iowa is considering a sales tax holiday to offset high fuel costs.
More states are attempting to slow uncontrolled growth by encouraging collaboration between county and municipal governments, according to the national conference.
In the last three years, some 25 states have passed legislation that could be viewed as smart growth initiatives, says Larry Morandi, who directs that group's environment, energy and transportation studies.
Among the most comprehensive initiatives were those in Maryland, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Maine and Wisconsin. Maryland kicked off the trend in 1997 with a plan that awarded state-funded incentives for development plans that made use of existing infrastructures. Pennsylvania last year agreed to grant financial incentives to municipalities that drew up collaborative development plans. Others states, including Illinois, have created open space initiatives as a hedge against sprawl.
This year, growth management will be a key legislative issue for the Colorado legislature, Morandi says. Voters rejected a November initiative requiring voter approval of local development plans. Other states expected to consider growth management proposals include New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and Michigan, where creation of an urban growth management caucus was recommended. Georgia will be pressed to come up with plans to deal with heavy growth in the Atlanta area, Morandi says.
Nationally, prescription drug spending increased by 18.4 percent in 1999, and national aggregate drug expenses are estimated at $78.9 billion, the conference reports. Consequently, state programs to address high pharmaceutical prices have been adopted in 22 states, and other states will consider action this year.
Last year, Maine was the first state to set prescription price controls. Other states are expected to follow. Illinois was among the states that expanded eligibility for assistance in prescription payments.
One new initiative is a multistate pharmaceutical buying pool that is being formed by the Northern New England Governors.
The Federal Drug Administration's approval last fall of the drug Mifepristone (also known as RU 486), which induces nonsurgical abortion, is likely to be a determining factor in the shape of legislatures' debates on the abortion issue, according to the conference.
States are not allowed to ban use or sale of FDA-approved drugs, which is likely to spark review of language on abortion laws by legislators. The first state to look at RU 486-specific language is Kentucky, where a bill was filed in advance of the legislative session calling for that state's definition of abortion to be amended to include Mifepristone and to prohibit prescribing the drug to minors without parental consent, says Laura Tobler, who tracks health-related policy for the conference.
In Oklahoma, what Tobler calls the most controversial measure was proposed: an outright ban on Mifepristone. The measure probably wouldn't stand up to a court challenge because it appears to conflict with interstate commerce, Tobler says.
More than 100 million Americans subscribe to wireless phone services, but only three states impose restrictions on the use of cell phones while driving.
Thirty-seven states have considered such measures since 1995, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last year, measures were considered in 27 states.
The pressure is on from other levels of government. Local governments in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania require that only hands-free phones be used by drivers, and it's estimated that as many as 300 local jurisdictions are considering taking similar action.
Illinois is among states where legislators have been urged to adopt uniform restrictions.
Other states where restrictions have been sought include California, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
Illinois Gov. George Ryan is not alone in his desire to regulate payday loan outfits. High interest, short-term alternative lending services have been, and continue to be, the subject of debate throughout the nation. According to the Midwest Office of the Council of State Governments, the 24 states that allow payday lending in some form, eight, including Illinois, have no limits on lending fees.
According to the council, Wisconsin licenses payday lenders, but doesn't cap rates or fees; Indiana limits each transaction to a $33 finance charge, but a measure to cap rates at 18 percent for loans of up to $500 failed last year; Michigan is considering regulations similar to Indiana's. Meanwhile, Ohio has the toughest restrictions in the region, according to the council, and already limits loans to $500.
Maureen Foertsch McKinney
Townships and 'undervotes'
The Associated Press raised questions about the usefulness of the state's 150-year-old township system of government in a series of reports released late last year.
In an analysis of the effectiveness of this state's 1,433 townships, AP found that in 1999 these often-obscure units of local government "collected almost half a billion dollars from taxpayers, although many did not need the money and hundreds wound up spending as much on bureaucracy as on services." The reporters examined audits and public records and interviewed township officials, taxpayers and experts. Overall, according to AP's assessment, townships spent $1 on salaries and administration for every $1 in services they delivered. AP reports, for example, that Benton Township last September paid $7,500 for two employees to pass out $500 in welfare to five needy people in Franklin County.
Townships, created when Illinois was still a largely rural state with a far-flung population, are responsible for maintaining rural roads and delivering general financial assistance to needy people. Today, these services, AP argued, can be and mostly are offered by cities, counties and the state.
The Illinois Constitution gives counties the option of creating township units, with voter approval (85 of 102 counties have townships). It also allows voters to abolish them. But, in an uncharacteristically pointed political assessment, the AP argued townships are unlikely to be abolished because the statewide association representing township officials promotes targeting, investigating and personally discrediting the motives of anyone who opposes them.
Indeed, township officials already are fighting back. In an editorial published shortly after release of the AP series, Bryan Smith, executive director of the Township Officials of Illinois, argued that "township government is about local, personal service. And the people served by township governments have more control over township operations than any other form of government in Illinois."
The Chicago Tribune reported late last year that the November presidential "undervote" in Cook County "dwarfed the rest of the state and was more than double that of the last two presidential elections." Further, the newspaper reported, voters in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods were especially likely to fail to cast a valid vote for president. Cook County uses punch-card ballots.
Ryan wants to bankrupt predatory lenders
Gov. George Ryan has decided to use his administrative powers to ban predatory lending practices. Ryan ordered the Office of Banks and Real Estate and the Department of Financial Institutions to write rules prohibiting banks and other so-called payday lenders from engaging in such practices.
More than 600 so-called payday loan stores have opened in Illinois since 1997, according to the Midwest Office of the Council of State Governments, yet this state has set no limits on the fees those stores can charge. The usually short-term loans offered by unethical companies carry high interest rates, sometimes as much as 20 percent, and high risk for the borrowers.
The 91st General Assembly considered several measures on predatory lending, but didn't adopt any.
The governor's proposed regulations would require lenders to verify a borrowers' ability to repay, limit refinancing to that which is beneficial to the borrower and prohibit deceptive marketing. These provisions mirror an ordinance adopted by the Chicago City Council.
The state regulations are under consideration by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. That panel, with representatives from both legislative chambers, has authority to determine whether they can be implemented.
Maureen Foertsch McKinney
Help for poor people, lawmakers, farmers, scholars. None for prison workers
In a two-day session last month, the 91st General Assembly tied up a few loose ends and left a few hanging.
Heating assistance: It broadened eligibility for heating bill subsidies. As a result, income limits would rise to $12,528 a year for an individual and $25,560 for a family of four. The grants would cover up to 60 percent of heating costs under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
District allowances: It boosted district office allowances for state representatives by $4,000 a year (to $61,000) and senators by $6,000 (to $73,000). At the same time, it established a cost-of-living increase not to exceed 5 percent. The COLA, which takes effect a year from July, means lawmakers won't have to vote again on the politically sensitive issue.
Legal fees: It authorized up to $100,000 to help a group of farmers cover defense costs in a suit filed by the Miami Tribe over land ownership.
Industrial hemp: It authorized the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University to seek federal approval to grow and study industrial hemp, a close cousin of marijuana, to see if it could become a viable cash crop for farmers. The estimated cost for the study could be as much as $1 million.
Pensions: It failed to sign off on a pension agreement between state workers and the governor. Senate President James "Pate" Philip wanted to put into law a provision requiring that prison workers be fired if they fail a single drug test.
Training dollars down in proposed budget
Though its spending plan for fiscal year 2002 calls for an overall $320 million increase, the Illinois State Board of Education recommends reducing the teacher training fund by half.
This fiscal year, $24.3 million was appropriated for a teacher training block grant. Under the proposed budget the board approved last month, that line item was reduced to $12 million.
Lee Milner, the board's spokesman, says the proposed $6.2 billion budget signals that teacher training may be accomplished differently. He says that while the board has decreased the professional development line item, it has proposed adding $12 million to schools' average daily attendance block grant and another $5 million for a mentoring program that pairs new teachers with more seasoned colleagues. Currently about 500 Illinois school districts have mentoring programs.
Milner says shifting money from the training block grant to the attendance-based grant gives local school officials more control over those dollars. In a printed statement, the board said: "Despite the challenges of finding enough money to do everything, 96 percent of our proposed budget will go directly to local schools. ... This pool of money can be used for safety, textbooks and software, teacher training, curriculum development, school improvement, remediation, report cards, criminal background checks, and induction and mentoring." The funding shift also "eliminates considerable paperwork and bureaucracy at the local and state levels."
The state board's proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 must be approved by Gov. George Ryan, who is scheduled to deliver his budget message on the 21st.
This year's elementary and secondary school budget debate will be complicated by the need to review guaranteed per-pupil spending.