Week in Review for October 27-31

Cronus Fertilizer

Pushed by Rep. Adam Brown, fertilizer manufacturer chooses downstate Illinois as location of $1.4 billion plant

Operated by Cronus Chemicals LLC, the new plant will create over 2,000 construction job opportunities, provide for 175 full-time permanent jobs and have an economic impact to the community estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.  Operations are expected to begin in 2017.

The facility, to be known as Cronus Fertilizer, is expected to produce 800,000 tons per year of ammonia, most of which will be converted to 1.4 million tons of granular urea.  The plant will be built near Tuscola, Illinois, south of the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area.  The site is located adjacent to Interstate 57, to the Decatur Subdivision of the CSX railway system, and to natural gas pipelines necessary for the energy-intensive process.   Its impact to East-Central Illinois is covered by the Champaign News-Gazette.

Tuscola vied against Mitchell County, Iowa for the Cronus plant.  In an effort to gain an advantage, State Representative Adam Brown sponsored legislation that was signed into law last year to provide an incentive package worth an estimated $14.5 million, with another $16 million available through existing economic programs.  The legislation qualifies the Tuscola development for High Impact Business Incentives in the Enterprise Zone Act.  Rep. Brown’s work to bring Cronus to Tuscola is covered by the Decatur Herald & Review.

Ebola Virus

Confusion results as Quinn administration imposes explicit home quarantine on persons suspected of Ebola infection

On Friday, October 24, Gov. Quinn signed an order mandating that all healthcare professionals who have been involved in caring for Ebola patients undergo a mandatory 21-day home quarantine.  The order followed public disclosure of the presence of caregivers infected with Ebola in the states of Texas, Ohio, New Jersey, and Maine.

While public health experts agree on the need for intensive, well-coordinated efforts to reduce and eliminate public contact with the contagious virus, Quinn’s executive order sparked an uproar.  Fellow Democrats, led by the current federal administration in Washington, D.C., subjected the quarantine order to harsh criticism.  Many Ebola caregivers, returning from West Africa, are unpaid volunteers who have offered their specialized medical skills for humanitarian or spiritual reasons.  After similar quarantine orders were imposed and partially loosened in New Jersey and New York, confusion and criticism resulted.  In addition, the Quinn order did not contain provisions to call on the federal government to ban entry into the United States of visitors from three countries in which Ebola is now epidemic: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.  The story is summarized by MyFoxChicago.

Energy – ComEd

State OKs new high-tension power line in northern Illinois
The 345-kilovolt (kV) ComEd line will create a supply pipeline for up to 1,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity to metropolitan Chicago.  The 70-mile line is scheduled to start near Byron, in Ogle County, and pass through DeKalb, Kane, and DuPage Counties on its way to energy consumers in the six counties of greater Chicago.  Controversy over the decision centered on the $250-million line’s passage past several areas of significant population density, including the city of Elgin.  Some believe that high-tension power lines are toxic, dangerous, or ugly, and that ComEd has not met the burden of documentation required to prove that constructing the high-tension line is in the public interest. 

In supporting documentation filed with the Illinois Commerce Commission, ComEd reported that the new Grand Prairie Gateway 345-KV line will provide increased access to Chicago for non-carbon-based electrical generation.  Although renewable electricity can come from a wide variety of sources, it is expected that the new power will overwhelmingly be generated by wind farms located in northwestern Illinois, Iowa, and states even further west.  A wide variety of wind farms, with nameplate generating capacities of 100 MW and up, are sprouting throughout the American Midwest.

The Illinois Commerce Commission’s decision in favor of Grand Prairie Gateway, reached on Wednesday, October 22, is described by Platt’s, the energy industry journal.  Construction of the ComEd line is scheduled to start in the second quarter of calendar year 2015, with the new line going into operation no later than June 1, 2017.

Energy – Fracking

North Dakota enjoys nation’s lowest unemployment rate: Illinois panel to address fracking rules on November 6

Nationwide figures compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that North Dakota’s current (September 2014) jobless rate is 2.8 percent, less than half of the 6.6% jobless rate reported in the same month in Illinois.  Economists attribute North Dakota’s current prosperity to hydraulic fracturing of the Bakken Shale, a massive oil-bearing formation in and around Williston.  The Bakken shale is believed to trap more than four billion barrels of economically recoverable crude oil.  Numerous holes pushed into the Bakken shale by horizontal shale drilling teams, known as “frackers,” are now producing more than 1 million barrels of crude oil per day.

In sharp contrast to states such as Illinois with chronic budgetary challenges and deficits, the state government of thinly-populated North Dakota is currently running a surplus.  Helped by tax revenues from oil and gas production, current-year accountants expect the state’s budget surplus to total more than $600 million.  The budget situation is described by the Detroit Free Press here.

While fracking operations continue in North Dakota, no parallel drilling is taking place yet in the geologically similar New Albany Shale formation that lies underneath southeastern Illinois.  The Illinois General Assembly enacted legislation in May 2013 to legalize frack drilling in Illinois, but the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had not yet finalized the administrative rules necessary to legally issue frack drilling permits as of Friday, October 29. 

Efforts continue to get fracking underway in Illinois.  Draft fracking rules are due to be presented to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR), in their scheduled meeting on Thursday, November 6.  Many observers hope that final agreed rules, in compliance with SB 1715 as passed in May 2013, will be promulgated at that time.  The adoption of fracking rules will make it possible, in turn, for crews to submit applications to DNR for permits to drill.  The energy industry has made it clear that they believe Illinois shale is well suited to production of crude oil, natural gas, and gas liquids such as propane – a commodity essential to dry Illinois crops for storage and to heat rural homes and livestock buildings.

Illiana Expressway

Better Government Association (BGA) adds to questions about Quinn administration highway project

The controversial 47-mile limited-access motor vehicle corridor is being subjected to more criticism in the wake of a controversial October 9 vote by the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to keep the troubled Illinois-Indiana project alive. 

Slated to be built and operated by the private sector, the high-speed roadway would connect Interstate 55 near Wilmington, Illinois with Interstate 65 near Lowell, Indiana.  The concrete corridor, which would be maintained under the supervision of the two state highway departments served by the project, would charge tolls to the cars and freight traffic that use the highway.  Should tolls not be sufficient to maintain the debt used by the private-sector partner to build the road, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) would be required to transfer state Road Fund money to make up the difference. 

It is this transfer from the Road Fund, fed by motor fuel taxes paid by Illinois motorists, that is one of the key questions facing the project.  Illinois’ responsibility for the project could extend as long as 40 years, the life of the bonds to be sold to finance the proposed roadway.  The transfer could be as big as $1 billion.  A motion on October 9 to delete Illiana from a key document, the overall MPO Chicago-area transportation plan, failed by a narrow vote of 10-8-1.   The decision by the Chicago-based Better Government Association (BGA) to join those asking questions about the project signaled continued challenges facing the proposed highway.  The BGA published its questions on Sunday, October 26 in partnership with the Chicago Sun-Times.

Jobs – Illinois ranks 45th

Study by Arizona State University (ASU) ranks Illinois 45th in job creation

Job growth in Illinois the first nine months of 2014 was less than 1% of total Illinois employment.  According to the Illinois Department of Employment Security, more than 5.8 million Illinois residents are employed in the nonfarm sector.  After hundreds of thousands of jobs disappeared in the 2008-2014 “Great Recession,” Illinois has struggled to recover the lost ground. 

36,000 new jobs were created in Illinois in the first nine months of 2014.  By contrast, Texas created more than 362,000 new jobs in the same period, achieving job growth of 3.2% as opposed to Illinois’ 0.6%.  Energy-rich states that have legalized horizontal-shale drilling for crude oil and natural gas scored well in the ASU study, with North Dakota ranked #1 among the 50 states and Texas #3.

Illinois unemployment remains at recession levels, notching in at 6.6% in September 2014.  The story was published in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, October 28.

Mass Transit – Metra

Continued controversy surrounds massive fare hike request

While the governing board of Metra has presented its ten-year, 68% fare-hike-ramp-up plan as a way to garner cash flow for new infrastructure, the agency’s actual spending plans call for dedicating the first year’s fare hike to pension funding and employee compensation (particularly employee and retiree health care), not new trains.

Metra, the public-sector agency that operates eleven commuter railroad lines in the Chicago area, shares the pension-funding crisis borne by other unionized public-sector employers throughout Illinois.  A variety of public-sector employees, including Metra train workers, have been promised generous retirement packages.  The Chicago Tribune points out that commuters will pay more in 2015 for their train tickets but will find themselves riding on the same old railroad cars and slow, jolting roadbeds. 

Metra is the commuter-train operating board of the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), the three-operating-board umbrella panel that governs overall Chicago-area mass transit policies.  The two other RTA operating boards, the Chicago Transportation Authority (CTA) and Pace, the suburban bus agency, face pension and personnel-compensation challenges similar to Metra.    

Medical Cannabis

“Second wave” of medical cannabis patient applications to be accepted starting this week 

Starting on November 1, the Department of Public Health (DPH) will begin accepting applications from persons with a last name starting with the letter M through Z for a patient card that will authorize them to purchase medical cannabis at an approved dispensary.  Applications will be accepted through December 31.  Persons with a patient card will be authorized to purchase up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis in every two-week period.  

Persons with a last name starting with the letter A-L have been encouraged to submit applications for a medical cannabis registry card since early September.  The DPH patient application and approval process is now in operation, but applications from this A-L group in November 2014 and December 2014 will be discouraged so that DPH personnel can work their way through the M-Z applicants.  Beginning January 1, 2015, registration will be on a continual rolling basis for all applicants.

Even with a patient card in hand, cannabis will not be immediately available for approved patients.  The new Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act requires approved patients to use their cards at an approved cannabis dispensary.  The Department has stated that their desire to oversee state-of-the-art security requirements that will govern the cultivation centers that will grow the cannabis, the dispensaries that will distribute it, and the printing of tamper-proof patient identification cards, is slowing down the process of implementing the Act.  A story on the security precautions governing implementation of the Act was published on Wednesday, October 29 by Crain’s Chicago Business.

Plea Bargaining – Criminal Law

Representative Cabello introduces bill to reform Illinois plea bargaining system 

A 2012 study finds that more than 94 percent of all U.S. criminal convictions come through guilty pleas negotiated between prosecutors and offenders.  Illinois numbers are believed to be similar to this nationwide figure.  Many people with experience in the criminal law system and law enforcement, such as former longtime police officer John Cabello, believe that we need to take a look at plea bargaining and its role in the overall judicial system. 

One of the facets of plea bargaining that has drawn serious criticism in recent years is the lack of active participation by the court.  If the prosecutor, the defendant, and the defense attorney agree to a plea and present it to a court, under current Illinois the judge has only a limited number of pathways to intervene.  Cabello’s bill provides that if a defendant pleads guilty, the plea shall not be accepted until the judge has asked the defendant a series of questions, and heard the answers.  The questions, which are outlined in the text of the bill, try to find out whether the defendant understands the life-consequences, to himself or herself, of his or her plea of guilty.   

The Cabello bill, introduced on Friday, October 24, is meant to start a discussion about the current state of Illinois plea bargaining as it pertains to the role of the court.  The bill is HB 6309.

Soybeans – Harvest

Fields dry out, harvest of beans and remaining corn resumes

Illinois farmers are on tap, in projections published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to deliver 2.34 billion bushels of corn and 552 million bushels of soybeans to elevators and other purchasers this year.  Both harvest totals are expected to be records.  Earlier in October, 2014 harvesting activities were delayed in many regions of Illinois (Illinois report) due to wet weather and damp field conditions.  The bumper crops could lead to elevator storage challenges in some areas of Illinois.

Increased yields of U.S. corn and bean fields, combined with growth in production from newly-opened arable farmland throughout the world (particularly in South America) have led to sharp declines in the prices of these two harvest commodities from peak levels notched 18 months ago.  Substantial U.S. demand continues for corn-based ethanol and some export demand for beans reflects healthy demand from global animal feed markets.  Continued demand could stabilize these prices during the 2014-15 winter season.

Transportation – IDOT

Federal judge orders appointment of outside monitor to oversee IDOT hiring process

The hiring and promotion of senior-level officials at the Illinois Department of Transportation has come under serious scrutiny in recent months.  The revelation that substantial numbers of the Department’s top positions were unilaterally “exempted” from State law forbidding political hiring in positions implementing public policy made headlines throughout Illinois.  Questions about IDOT hiring deepened after the surprise departure of former Director Ann Schneider in late June 2014.

IDOT has ongoing, multi-billion-dollar responsibilities for the construction and rebuilding of Illinois roads, bridges, airports, and railroad lines.  However, accusations have continued to reverberate, with nonpartisan figures led by Michael Shakman raising questions about the Department, its top staff, and their potential partisan conflicts of interest.

One way to increase a focus on potential political hiring at IDOT, and to start what could be the lengthy process of cleaning up the troubled agency, is to hire a federal monitor to oversee IDOT’s hiring decisions.  Public watchdog Shakman had standing, based on his previous case work, to ask a court to order this be done.  On Wednesday, October 22, federal magistrate judge Sidney Shenkier issued a court order to IDOT to hire monitor Noelle Brennan.  Brennan will have the right to scrutinize any hiring decision made by IDOT, but is expected to concentrate on positions defined as implementation positions.  Holders of implementation positions don’t make policy, and their officeholders should not be hired for political reasons.  Holders of policy positions, by contrast, shape the policies that others implement.  These positions typically include the highest-ranking aides to the director of the Department; however, in a patronage-ridden agency people sometimes become political hires even if their standing is far below the policymaking level.  The Chicago Tribune describes Brennan’s hiring in this editorial. The Jacksonville Journal-Courier praises Judge Shenkier’s decision here.

Transportation – Toll Roads

New traffic lanes opened from Rockford to Elgin

The Illinois Toll Highway Authority project expands the much-used toll road from two lanes in each direction to three.  The project covers 37 miles of highway in rural north-central Illinois and in the outer Chicago suburbs west of Elgin’s Randall Road.  In addition, pavement was replaced; some of the former pavement of the road, laid down as the Northwest Tollway in the 1950s and 1960s, was 56 years old.  The ribbon-cutting was held on Tuesday, October 28. 

The Rockford-Elgin work will be followed by 25 miles of work from Elgin to the Tri-State Tollway.  The northwest Cook County segment of the project will widen the toll road from 6 lanes to 8 lanes (4 in each direction); this section of the project is scheduled to be completed by December 2016.  The Jane Addams Memorial Tollway is one of the most heavily-used toll highways in the United States, serving more than 317,000 average daily vehicles.

The $2.5 billion Addams rebuilding and widening project is being financed by a near-doubling of tolls charged to motorists.  The Illinois Toll Highway Authority describes the project in this press release.

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