Week in Review for 7/7/14

Chicago – NRI Scandal
Reports surface that federal investigators are requesting that the Legislative Audit Commission suspend its inquiry for 90 days. The U.S. Department of Justice’s request could delay efforts by the Commission to hear testimony from key former aides to Gov. Pat Quinn, including former chief of staff Jack Lavin and ex-deputy chief of staff Toni Irving. The Commission has subpoenaed seven witnesses to testify on the scandal-plagued Neighborhood Recovery Initiative (NRI) at a two-day hearing scheduled to start on Wednesday, July 16.

The Audit Commission subpoenas are meant to protect taxpayers’ interests and continue the General Assembly’s work of monitoring how taxpayers’ money is spent. The Commission’s inquiry, unlike any actions that may be taken by the U.S. Attorney’s office or a grand jury, is expected to be carried out in public. Members of the Commission are preparing to continue their inquiries with the hope of answering unanswered questions about NRI spending implementation and overall operations.

The NRI program was a now-defunct $54.5 million taxpayer-funded initiative aimed at reducing violent crime in Chicago and surrounding suburbs. It made grants to local advocates for street-based social work programs. Previous work by the Legislative Audit Commission, spearheaded by Reps. David Reis and Ron Sandack, and by the Office of the Illinois Auditor General Bill Holland, has raised serious questions about the probity of the grant-distributing process and the actual outcome of the monies spent by the program. The NRI program’s procurement operations reached their peak in fall 2010 just prior to the narrow election of Gov. Pat Quinn to a full term in office. The Chicago Sun-Times has more here.

Chicago – Violent Crime
Over 80 shot, 15 killed during Fourth of July weekend in Chicago. Chronically elevated levels of urban gun violence typically peak during summer weekends, with the toll concentrated on the city’s South and West Sides. The human toll of these tragic incidents falls heaviest on the wounded and bereaved, but providers of Chicago health care also face the burden of emergency medicine for traumatized victims.

Homicide counts have been elevated in Chicago for many years. In 2013, 415 homicides were recorded within city limits – a population-adjusted death count more than double that of New York City. Territorial disputes between criminal gangs involved in the lucrative distribution of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, opiates, and other drugs are blamed for much of the deadly gunplay.

The Fourth of July incidents reinforced what has already been a continuous stream of pleas and accusations from church and community leaders within the affected neighborhoods that Chicago city police are not currently able to keep the peace within city limits. Under current law, Illinois State Police officers are restricted to patrolling Chicago city expressways and superhighways, and they work in a city crime lab; they do not perform peacekeeping duties within city limits unless the Mayor requests their assistance.

Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Chicago’s police superintendent Garry McCarthy, issued public statements this week blaming weak U.S. gun laws for the high death count. However, recent trends concur that Chicago gun-control ordinances (among the strictest in the nation) have not, so far, been successful at reducing city violence.

Criminal Law – Heroin 
Sharp increases in heroin use and overdoses, including deaths, reported in Chicago suburbs. Heroin’s highly addictive qualities are reported to be drawing in more and more Illinois residents, even young adults and children. Efforts by medical care providers to reduce the quantities of opiate painkillers, such as Vicodin and Oxycontin, prescribed in Illinois are raising the street price of these prescription-only medications and leading many persons with potential painkiller addictions to heroin. Defendants report to law enforcement that the drug is available in locations such as Chicago’s West Side for as little as $20 a bag.

The Illinois General Assembly has intensified its scrutiny of how heroin is distributed and used illegally in Illinois. Two legislative task forces are holding hearings this summer with the goal of developing a package of legal recommendations aimed at reducing the availability of the drug in Illinois, especially with respect to juvenile victims. A news story from NBC/Chicago, co-written by veteran investigative reporter Carol Marin, can be found here.

Data shows more than 850,000 people have moved out of Illinois since 1995. The updated numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service show where people are “domiciled” for the purpose of living and paying taxes. Under four governors since 1995, one U.S. resident has left Illinois for some other state every 10 minutes.

Compiled by the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), the re-domicile numbers show Illinoisans leaving to all sorts of states with a better job climate. States well-known for growth-oriented economic policies share the spotlight with more humble neighbors such as Missouri that have quietly developed a climate of lower taxes and pro-business positions. 34,000 Illinois residents have re-domiciled to Missouri over this period.

The study points out the effect of this migration not only on overall population figures, but also on tax revenues from monies no longer paid to Illinois in sales and income taxes. The IPI reports that $35 billion in total tax revenue has been lost during this 19-year period, creating a cumulative loss of almost $2 billion/year.

New law creates School Safety Task Force. The School Safety Task Force bill, SB 2747, was guided through the House by lead sponsor Rep. Brian Stewart of Freeport, a former sheriff’s deputy and board member of the Northwest Illinois Criminal Justice Commission. The bill was signed into law on Thursday, July 3 as Public Act 98-695.

The 18-member Task Force will include four parents of school-aged children appointed by the four legislative leaders. Teachers, principals, public safety officers, and leaders from the police and firefighting sectors will also be represented. The panel, which will serve within the State Board of Education, has been asked to gather information about the current statewide status of school security and make recommendations for enhancing this public safety goal. These recommendations may include recommendations to change the way schools carry out door security, strengthen their video and audio monitoring, secure their windows and other potential entrances to school buildings, and carry out many other day-to-day public safety responsibilities.

The Task Force is asked to report to the General Assembly on or before January 1, 2015. Based on the accelerated time-schedule imposed upon the members of this panel, it is expected that members will be appointed during the remaining summer weeks of 2014.

Energy – Fracking
More than a year after fracking bill became law, no sign of drilling activity in Southern Illinois. Even as other Northern and Eastern states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia swing into full-fledged drilling for ‘tight shale’ oil and natural gas, Illinois’ New Albany formation has remained untouched. Drilling work has not yet begun in the Illinois section of the 60,000-square-mile New Albany shale bed, a geological foundation for the flat “Illinois Basin” that makes up most of Illinois and parts of Indiana and Kentucky.

Eager to take steps that could lead to a significant increase in the production of fossil fuels in Illinois, the General Assembly enacted the Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act (P.A. 98-22) in 2013. This law (which became effective on June 17, 2013) enacted the toughest package of regulatory controls on horizontal drilling in the U.S. As with other complex regulatory laws, the fracking law must be implemented by administrative rules prior to the commencement of licensed drilling activity. However, more than 12 months have passed since the effective date of the fracking law and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), the state entity responsible for drafting and revising these rules, has not yet finalized a revised version in response to public comment. Furthermore, IDNR has not yet hired the personnel that would be required to take drillers’ license applications, inspect drilling sites, and implement the new law.

Advocates for economic growth and job creation in hard-pressed regions of Downstate Illinois are beginning to speculate that continued concerns raised by some environmental groups about horizontal drilling may be playing a role in the continued non-implementation of the Illinois fracking law. The Decatur Herald & Review has more on fracking challenges here.

Environment – Animal Feeding
Concentrated animal feeding operations come under scrutiny. Modern agricultural practices, particularly with respect to hogs, group increasing numbers of animals together in farm buildings that practice concentrated animal feeding operations. The waste products generated by these buildings can get into Illinois surface water and groundwater.

The Pollution Control Board (PCB) has the responsibility to promulgate a wide variety of rules to protect Illinois air, surface water, and groundwater, and to enforce federal laws such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. PCB is currently updating its rules governing concentrated animal feeding operations, and these rules are currently on Second Notice and undergoing statewide scrutiny. The rules are now before the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR). The next JCAR meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, July 15, in Chicago and the new rules could be approved at that time for filing. The Agriculture Coalition, an ad hoc group that includes the Illinois Farm Bureau and three farmers’ groups that produce pork, milk, and beef, has expressed concern that some aspects of these new rules could be unduly burdensome on farmers.

Illinois Tornadoes
New law provides relief for Illinoisans hit by November 2013 tornadoes. The Governor signed SB 3259 into law as Public Act 98-702 on Monday, July 7.

Pushed through the House by Republican chief sponsor Chad Hays, the measure offers property tax abatement help for small businesses affected by the tornado disaster of November 17, 2013. A squall line of destructive storms, spanning almost the entire length of the state, killed Illinoisans and destroyed property in Washington, Gifford, and many other communities. SB 3259 creates a temporary (15-year) property tax abatement for commercial and industrial property being rebuilt on its original footprint after tornado destruction or severe damage.

The General Assembly’s 2014 action follows action taken in 2012 (P.A. 97-716) to create a similar property tax abatement for rebuilt residential property damaged by a tornado. SB 3259 was signed into law in Gifford, a Champaign County community hard-hit in November 2013 and working hard to rebuild itself. More than 200 Gifford homes and numerous local businesses were destroyed or damaged.

Medical Cannabis
Package of rules to implement Illinois “medical cannabis” law is on Second Notice. The rules are being scrutinized by Illinois lawmakers to ensure they comply with General Assembly intent when “medical cannabis” was enacted into law in May 2013 (P.A. 98-122).

The law will require cannabis dispensed for medical purposes to be closely controlled throughout the growing, transport, and retail processes and distributed only in secure environments. Growers and dispensaries will be heavily regulated and will enjoy exclusive rights to distribute cannabis products within defined geographic areas within Illinois. Only a small number of bona fide medical patients, who have been diagnosed with closely defined medical conditions, will be able to enjoy the right to legally purchase the potentially psychoactive substance. Nothing in this law will allow laypersons and civilians to enter a dispensary and purchase cannabis there for personal use.

Public Act 98-122 asked four State departments – Agriculture (DOA), Financial and Professional Regulation (DFPR), Public Health (DPH), and Revenue (IDOR) – to cooperate to generate the rules necessary to securely grow and dispense cannabis for the limited purposes set forth in the law. These rules have now been completed, public comments have been heard, and the final First Notice versions of these rules have been published. The texts of these rules have now been “frozen” on Second Notice so they can be re-read and scrutinized to ensure their compliance with the underlying statutory law. If this scrutiny is successful, the rules will be approved by the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR). The next JCAR meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, July 15, and the new rules could be approved at that time for filing.

Following approval and filing of the rules, qualified applicants will initiate an application process to apply for licenses or permits that will give them the right to grow, dispense, and otherwise participate in the distribution of medical cannabis within Illinois. The industry is expected to be up and running by mid-2015. This is expected to be a significant job-creating industry, with approximately $1 billion worth of cannabis to be annually dispensed in Illinois when the dispensary system attains full operational status.

Recreation – Boating Safety Certificates
Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to phase in Safety Certificate requirements for powerboat operation. The phase-in will take place over a period of time expected to last many years, as persons born before January 1, 1998 are exempted from the certification requirement by the new DNR law. All persons born on or after this date – the oldest of whom are age 16 as of summer 2014 – will be required to possess a valid Boating Safety Certificate issued by DNR or by a private-sector entity recognized by the Department as being competent to issue such certificates. Water police will have the right to stop a boat and ask to see the operator’s certification or proof of age.

The DNR safety certification process currently includes at least 8 hours of instruction on boating safety principles. Core principles includes a physical description of what makes a boat buoyant, overall risk avoidance that every boater ought to know (such as boating while intoxicated, enhanced dangers from storms, and recognizing other times not to be out on the water) and immediate hazard avoidance (such as recognizing the dangers of shallow water and colliding with other boats/towropes/swimmers/dock structures).

Persons operating boats that are either (a) not powered by a motor, (b) powered by an electric motor only, or (c) powered by a non-electric motor of less than 10 horsepower, are exempted from this mandate. Persons operating boats on their own private water property are exempt from this mandate. Persons with certain enumerated forms of water experience, as defined by the Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Power Squadron, and other listed entities are also exempt.

SB 3433 was signed into law on Monday, July 7 as Public Act 98-698.

Recreation – Water Skiing Flags 
New law will require orange flags when towing a passenger through the water. The new law covers not only water skiing but all other forms of towing a person through Illinois waters, including watertubing, wakeboarding, water discing, and aquaplaning. Starting in 2015, any operator of a boat that is towing another person for recreation shall display an orange flag measuring at least 12 inches long. The flag shall fly from the boat’s helm whenever the passenger is physically outside the boat, including before and after the actual water skiing or tubing.

Existing laws already ban Illinois nighttime water skiing/tubing and require that the tow boat be occupied by at least 2 persons competent to operate the boat at all times. The new law, Public Act 98-697, was approved by the General Assembly in May as SB 2731.

Sports – Wrigley Field
Cubs, City of Chicago reach agreement on Wrigley Field renovation. A major $575 million renovation to the 100-year-old ballpark is expected to lead to the erection of seven outfield signs, including two massive 4,000-square-foot and 2,400-square-foot video boards, atop the bleachers that surround the park at Sheffield and Waveland Avenues. The renovation is expected to also improve essential amenities, such as rest areas, for the up to 41,072 fans who attend home games played by the Chicago Cubs. New clubhouse facilities, including locker rooms, will be built for the home and visiting teams. The revised agreement, which replaces plans disclosed in 2013, was announced on Wednesday, July 9.

Various elements that are standard parts of more modern ballparks, such as a theme hotel for out-of-state fans and a public plaza adjacent to the park for celebrations and pep rallies, do not exist at the 1914 ball field at this time and will be constructed as part of the four-year project, now scheduled for completion in early 2018.

Suburbs – Will County
State purchases Bult Field. The long-planned “third airport” to be sited in southern Will County, on the edge of metropolitan Chicago, moved one step closer to construction status this month with the news that the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) has purchased a general-aviation airfield, Bult Field, that makes up part of the footprint of the proposed airport. Although Bult‘s 5,000-foot general-aviation runway is inadequate for the commercial and air-freight purposes for which the South Suburban Airport is being planned, acquisition of the field’s 288 acres completes the transfer of a significant land parcel for future construction. Bult Field is located near Monee, Illinois in the heart of the South Suburban Airport footprint.

 IDOT stated that their expectation is to continue near-term use of Bult Field as a general aviation airfield during the airport planning process. The light-plane airfield includes a taxiway, hangars, and air terminal. Following extensive negotiations, the land parcel changed hands for $34 million.

IDOT Secretary abruptly resigns. Ann Schneider’s departure as Secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) became effective this week. The June 30 announcement of the resignation of the former department head was accompanied by the news that she had already been replaced on an acting-director basis by Erica Borggren, the former head of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

The management change closely followed the appearance of a study by the Better Government Association (BGA), which alleges that the Quinn administration has implemented widespread patterns of patronage hiring and promotion favoritism at IDOT. The Department’s taxpayer-funded budget of $5 billion/year implements numerous highway construction programs, aid programs for Illinois local roads, grants to Chicago-area and Downstate mass transit, and the maintenance and improvement of Illinois’ network of public airports.

Week in Review
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