Let local officials handle smoke issue

It was less than two years ago that Illinois legislators passed a bill allowing local communities to decide for themselves whether to allow smoking in public. More than 40 communities, including Champaign and Urbana, subsequently voted to bar public smoking, and others are sure to follow.

Now the same people who argued that local elected officials should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to permit smoking in public are complaining about the "patchwork" of cities and towns that have so far barred smoking.They insist there must be a statewide ban, and last week the Illinois Senate approved legislation to impose a statewide smoking ban. Now the legislation is headed to the Illinois House of Representatives.

Frerichs to hold traveling office hours over break

State Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Gifford, plans to conduct traveling office hours while the General Assembly is on a two-week spring break.

He will be available to meet with constituents from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. today at his Champaign office, 45 E. University Ave., Suite 206. On Thursday, he will be at the Heron Restaurant in Danville from noon to 1 p.m., at Bismarck Village Hall from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., at Henning Village Hall from 3:15 to 4:15 p.m. and at Slaughter House in Potomac from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.

Thomas' libel case hurting Illinois courts

A Cook County judge has reduced by $3 million a libel judgment recently awarded to Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Thomas.

The decision by Circuit Judge Donald O'Brien, who attributed the jury's original $7 million award to "passion and prejudice" that "shocked" his conscience, is headed in the right direction. But, unfortunately, he's still off by $4 million.

Lauterbur's work will live on

University faculties across the country are home to a great many brilliant minds, but very few giants.

The University of Illinois last week lost a giant – University of Illinois professor and Nobel Prize winner Paul Lauterbur. We shall not see his like again soon.

Mr. Speaker, how about nixing gross receipts tax?

Gov. Rod Blagojevich is scheduled to be in Danville this week to promote his controversial plan to increase spending on health care, public education and pensions through the sale of the state lottery and the imposition of a new gross receipts tax.

It will be interesting to see who appears with him. Most area lawmakers have either come out against the gross receipts tax, indicated they prefer an alternative tax plan or said they're waiting to see the bill, which still hasn't been introduced even though the governor made it a centerpiece of his March 7 budget address.

Urbana asking neighbors to be neighborly after big snowfalls

The notion that Urbana property owners should be required to remove snow from sidewalks doesn't seem to have, pardon the pun, much traction with the city council.

That's good. The one thing the city doesn't need during a snowstorm, or in its aftermath, is the snow police banging on doors and ordering people to go out and clear snow from public sidewalks. Nor does the city have the staff or the money (it would cost as much as $185,000 after one snowfall) to clear the walks itself.

State needs to make safety improvements at area spillways

The state Department of Natural Resources is considering installing additional safety measures for the spillway at Clinton Lake after a fishing boat accident that killed three people last month. The three were members of a Normal family whose boat went over the 25-foot-high spillway in a windy, rainy night. Rescue workers spent more than a week looking for the youngest victim, 8-year-old Kalin Hunter.

Among the options being considered at the spillway – there already are buoys and warning signs in place – are new buoys with flashing lights, lights on the spillway and some kind of floating barrier strung across the front of the spillway.

An ambitious plan for Champaign schools

Following a directive from U.S. Judge Joe Billy McDade, lawyers for the Champaign schools and plaintiffs in a civil rights lawsuit have reached agreement on another series of initiatives designed to improve the performance of minority students.

Some of the proposals have been discussed on prior occasions. Some are basic common-sense efforts to provide students in need with more intensive remedial assistance, particularly in reading. But others pose hurdles that seem certain to continue to place the school district at odds with the plaintiffs' lawyers and provide the foundation for the relentless effort by plaintiffs' lawyers to extend the consent decree beyond its scheduled 2009 expiration date.

Government must act quickly to improve veterans' care

An internal review of the 1,400 Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics, including the Illiana Healthcare System hospital in Danville, found what was described as mostly routine problems. "The overwhelming majority of the issues identified are normal 'wear and tear' items that are continually addressed through regular inspections and recurring maintenance," said Veteran Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson.

At the Danville facility, for example, the review found stained and rusted refrigerators; buildings with leaking windows, broken floor tiles, no handwashing sinks in patient rooms; buildings with moldy and deteriorated wood siding; and one worrisome notation: "various sanitation and facilities maintenance issues." One is left to wonder if that includes something like the rot, mouse droppings and cockroaches found at other VA and Army medical centers.

'Extra Innings' has pols extra worried

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings into the firings of eight United States attorneys across the country have had their moments of dramatic flair, but it's nice to see that at least a couple of members of the Senate have kept their eyes – literally – on the ball.

With the Major League Baseball season just around the corner, that's important.