Monday, June 19, 2017

Hope for an Illinois Budget?

Governor Finally Supports a Budget Plan, but Democrats Remain Spooked

By Rich Miller

One of the hottest rumors making the rounds among Statehouse types last week was that the governor and/or the Illinois Republican Party will be sending “trackers” to Springfield for the upcoming special legislative session.

The rumor, which was everywhere, was that the trackers would follow Democrats around to try to get them to say silly things or record them doing stuff that might not look good to the folks back home.

House staff was even telling Democratic members to watch out for the trackers. And some Democrats were privately demanding that their party respond in kind.

So I went to the upper echelons of Team Rauner and asked whether the rumors were true. I was told in no uncertain terms that they were not.

Nasty rumors thrive in the pea-soup fog of fear and loathing that pervades the Statehouse these days. At one time or another, it seems like everybody has fought everybody and now nobody trusts anybody.

Heck, the far-right Illinois Policy Institute is even running Facebook ads whacking Governor Bruce Rauner and legislative Republicans for their “$5-billion tax hike.” Rauner used to be a large contributor and often sought advice from and palled around with the group’s leader.

The governor’s party last week proposed what appears on the surface to be a fairly reasonable budget plan (pending further review) with some much-needed tax increases. But they couched the unveiling in such overtly partisan and demanding terms that it looks like a trap to many eyes on both sides of the aisle.

“We’re calling a special session so lawmakers can pass the Republicans’ compromise balanced budget plan with reforms,” Rauner tweeted just before he officially called the special session. The governor has obvious comprehension problems with the concept of “compromise.” A plan drafted by one party and then presented as an all-or-nothing demand doesn’t quite fit the traditional definition of the word. Then again, the Democratic majority has also done this on countless occasions.

At least Rauner is finally starting to own something, but if he had just laid his tax-hike cards on the table two-and-a-half years ago, we might not be in this mess today. Senate President John Cullerton has said almost from the beginning that the only way a tax increase will pass is if the governor asks for it and sets the rates.

There’s so little trust right now that some Democrats (and some Republicans, who’ve also been burned by Rauner) still want the governor to specifically say aloud that he will sign a personal-income-tax rate of 4.95 percent and new service taxes on things such as landscaping, which are included in his proposal.

But it’s not just the rumors or the proposals or the press conferences. Other recent events have thoroughly rattled many Democrats. For instance, on June 9 Rauner contributed $1.5 million to the Illinois Republican Party, and the following day the state party passed through $850,000 to the House Republicans’ campaign committee.

To some Democratic eyes, Rauner gave his Republicans big bucks to either vote for tax hikes or stay mum.

It’s also pretty much impossible to pass a tax hike without votes from Chicago Democratic legislators, who don’t have to worry about general-election challenges. Yet the Republican proposal included what seemed to Chicago Democrats to be an obvious poison pill: Vote to raise taxes while simultaneously shortchanging funding for Chicago’s public schools.

And then Illinois Republican Party negative mailers started hitting various House Democratic incumbents.

“Fred Crespo and Mike Madigan may let Illinois collapse,” blared a mailer that landed last week in Representative Crespo’s suburban turf. “Fred Crespo teamed with Mike Madigan to: Block a balanced budget; Bail out Chicago Public Schools; Prevent a property-tax increase; Reject job-creating reforms.”

Rauner recently began airing TV ads attacking Speaker Madigan and his “puppets” for letting the state “crumble” and for wanting to raise taxes “by billions.”

It’s true that the House Democrats do stand alone as the only caucus without a budget plan. It’s not at all inaccurate to warn Illinoisans that the House Dems may “let Illinois collapse,” because they haven’t yet done anything concrete to keep the government from collapsing.

But Democrats are left wondering if Rauner is trying to intimidate them into voting with him or setting them up to take the blame for a plan that wasn’t ever going anywhere. We’ll find out soon.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Senate Health Care Bill

Fellow Illinoisan,                                                                                                                                

Yesterday, I asked U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price—the person responsible for implementing any changes to our nation’s health care system—if he or anyone at his agency has seen the Senate Republicans’ secret health care repeal bill, which they intend to bring to a vote before the Fourth of July. He admitted that he had not.

That’s because only thirteen male Republican senators know the contents of that bill. It is being crafted behind closed doors and closely guarded by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. The American public has not seen this repeal bill, and there hasn’t been a single hearing on the legislation or any opportunity to offer an amendment. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office hasn’t yet published an analysis of the bill, so we don’t know how many people would lose insurance under the Republican plan, how out-of-pocket costs would increase, or how people with preexisting conditions would fare. 

Remember that, in 2009, when we were working on the Affordable Care Act, the Senate held more than 50 bipartisan public hearings, meetings, and roundtables on the legislation. We debated the bill on the Senate Floor for twenty-five consecutive days, considered hundreds of Republican and Democratic amendments, and accepted more than 170 Republican amendments.

Why are Republicans hiding the details of legislation that will affect every American and one-sixth of the U.S. economy? Why are they moving at a break-neck pace to have us vote on it before the Fourth of July? 

If the Senate Republican repeal bill looks anything like the version passed in the House of Representatives—which throws 23 million people off health care, including one million Illinoisans; once again allows insurance companies to discriminate against people with preexisting conditions; increases out-of-pocket costs for Americans aged 55 to 64 and those in rural communities; and jeopardizes 60,000 Illinois jobs— I understand why they want to do it in secret.

The American people deserve better. They deserve quality health care for themselves and their loved ones. And they deserve for their elected representatives to be honest with them.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Belvidere Animal Shelter Shuts Down


Belvidere Animal Shelter Shuts Down

The new caretakers of the Belvidere shelter said it was in bad condition.

By: Karina Parada

Posted: Jun 16, 2017 06:32 PM CDT

BELVIDERE - A longtime animal shelter in the Stateline area shuts down.
The new caretakers of the Fresh Start Animal Rescue in Belvidere said they had little choice after seeing conditions there. Angels 4 Animals held an open house to show people the poor conditions in which dogs and cats were being kept. The mold in the rooms, ripped walls, and dirty floors were all on display as visitors toured the shelter for the first time. Many of them were left speechless. Cages that were once filled with dogs and cats now sit empty. Fresh Start board members brought on Angels 4 Animals, an animal advocacy group, two months ago to turn around the shelter.
"When I walked in and I saw the animals and the way they were, it's heartbreaking," said Angels 4 Animals Vice President Amy Mehalko. "It was absolutely heartbreaking to come in and see the animals crying and barking."
Mehalko says the deplorable conditions were never known because the previous managers wouldn't allow anyone to see where the animals were kept, not even Fresh Start's own board members. Mehalko says her group tried to save Fresh Start, but couldn't.
"This building was not meant at any time to house animals,"  said Angels4Animals President Kathy Mehalko. "This building was not safe for the animals."
"We're very sorry for having to shut the doors but it was truly a last decision for all of us," said Amy Mehalko. "We tried every avenue that we could."
Many puppies at the shelter became sick due to the conditions. A total of 85 animals lives were lost at Fresh Start last year alone. Mehalko created a binder made up of people who adopted pets at the shelter. Every one of them had a pet with a major health issue. One of those owners was Carrie McCallum. She adopted a puppy named Carl. He died shortly after taking him home.
"After I found out what was going on here, I just had to come back here for Carl," said McCallum.
The animals that lived at Fresh Start have been placed at foster homes or other rescues. Everything inside the building is for sale.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Who is involved in Great Lakes Basis RR?


Here's who owns that $2.8 billion rail-untangling venture

By Claire Bushey

Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

A retired businessman pushing a plan to lay rail track that circumvents Chicago owns almost 90 percent of the venture, according to records.

Frank Patton, 74, owns 87.2 percent of Great Lakes Basin Transportation, the company seeking to build a $2.8 billion, 261-mile alternative for rail traffic to skirt the city's infamous congestion. Patton is the company's founder and chairman.

Great Lakes Basin had sought to keep its list of investors outside the public record, but the Surface Transportation Board, the U.S. regulator for railroads, required the company to disclose it. The company would profit from charging railroads to use the company's track.

Norfolk Southern Railway and Union Pacific Railroad have both said they would be unlikely to use it. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said their opposition brings "into question the demand and need for an additional rail line." The Catholic Diocese of Rockford also is opposing the project, saying it will cut across land near Winnebago needed to expand a local cemetery.

Shipping giant UPS, which wrote to regulators, supports the project.

Only two people besides Patton own more than 1 percent of Great Lakes Basin: Jim Wilson, the company's vice chairman and president, owns 5 percent, and Greg Frazados, Patton's lawyer, owns 1.01 percent.

Another seven investors each hold stakes of 1 percent or less. Four of them are officers or consultants at Great Lakes Basin.

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Legislators join fight against Great Lakes Basin Railroad

Legislators join fight against Great Lakes Basin Railroad

GLBR given June 22 deadline to supply information


11:56 pm

The current proposed route of the Great Lakes Basin Railroad and Daniel Burnham Expressway.

Image provided


MORRIS – Legislators are stepping up their fight against the proposed Great Lakes Basin Railroad, which would go through Grundy and LaSalle counties, as well as many others.

State Rep. David Welter, R-Morris, co-sponsored a resolution filed May 26 in the Illinois House of Representatives that opposes the proposed railroad and a highway that would run along it. It has been forwarded to the House Rules Committee.

Welter said that in his days as chairman of the Grundy County Board, he was against the proposal and still is. That board formally opposed it in May 2016.

“We were one of the first counties to pass a resolution opposing it,” Welter said.

Since then, counties and residents throughout the 275-mile route from southern Wisconsin to northeastern Indiana have spoken out against a proposal that Great Lakes Basin Railroad leadership says will alleviate a notorious railway bottleneck through the Chicago area.

The resolution was entered by state Rep. Lindsay Parkhurst, R-Kankakee.

“The main thing is that it would cut through farm land,” Welter said of his opposition to the proposed project. “Farming is a large economic driver for the area.”

GLBR co-founder Frank Patton and consultants came to Morris Community High School in May 2016 to discuss the proposal. Hundreds of residents showed up, and most were not happy with Patton’s responses to their questions.

“We hoped to get a lot of answers and I think we left with even more questions,” Welter said.

Farmers are concerned that the railroad would go through their property without regard for their rights as landowners, Welter said.

“The idea of using quick-take or grabbing up land for a private project without negotiating with landowners is an issue for me,” Welter said. “I’m a huge proponent of landowner rights.”

On May 1, GLBR filed an application to build the rail with the Surface Transportation Board. The latest plan includes the proposed Daniel Burnham Expressway, which would run from Interstate 80 west of Morris to Indiana, where it would again meet with the Interstate 80/94 expressway. It is meant to serve as a replacement for the long-discussed Illiana Expressway.

Along with that application, GLBR filed a motion for a protective order in an effort to keep information about its top 10 shareholders private.

On June 2, the STB requested financial information from GLBR, denied the request to keep shareholders confidential, and asked for a list of cities and counties it would serve because GLBR only supplied county information. The board gave GLBR until June 22 to submit the information.

U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Channahon, sent a letter in May to the STB opposing the project, citing constituent opposition to it.

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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Attorney General to Investigate IL Fire Chief's Termination

Attorney General to Investigate IL Fire Chief's Termination

Susan Vela On Jun 10, 2017
Source: McClatchy

chief brad bartell termination 593bfdea51e7e

The public attended the Boone County District 2 Fire Department board meeting where the chief was terminated.

Photo credit: Courtesy of WIFR

June 09--BELVIDERE -- The Illinois Attorney General is investigating whether the Boone County Fire Protection District 2 board violated the Open Meetings Act when it terminated Brad Bartell as chief.

The district's firefighters association requested the investigation.

"Trustees willingly and deliberately violated the OMA," the association's letter to the Illinois Attorney General's Office reads. "The emails we received via FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) were first sent to the fire district's attorney for screening prior to being sent to us.

"This filtered out many critical documents that are pertinent to your investigation. The documents we did receive however show a pattern of discussion and decisions being made behind the scenes."

Annie Thompson, the Attorney General's press secretary, said the state will take up an open meetings and FOIA investigation as it does with all requests.

The fire district's firefighters association requested the state's review because members say trustees should not have fired Bartell and haven't been transparent about why they let him go. When the association asked for a rationale, the trustees provided a list of concerns about Bartell that included allegations of mismanagement, missing equipment and failure to follow proper protocols.

Association members have been appearing at trustees' meetings to protest Bartell's firing and to express solidarity with their former chief.

Bartell, who serves as the Boone County Emergency Management Agency Coordinator, has said the trustees began asking him to leave closed sessions he normally would sit in on.

"With Brad, it was a family around here," volunteer firefighter Josh Dummer said Monday as the trustees discussed personnel matters in closed session. "If they're not going to respect him, why are they going to care about us?"

They've also let trustees Jack Ryan, Kevin Stark and Jim Marrs know they are circulating petitions aimed at putting a referendum question before voters asking whether trustees should be elected. Right now, the Boone County Board chairman appoints them.

The trustees and Bartell's replacement, Chief Bob Koehn, have declined to comment about Bartell's termination.

The fire district covers about 150 square miles, including the unincorporated communities of Irene, Herbert and Garden Prairie.

Bartell also declined to comment about the attorney general's review. He was with the fire district for 26 years -- five of them as chief -- when he was let go after an April 3 meeting.

Illinois' Open Meetings Act requires that public bodies cite why they're going behind closed doors. They're allowed to discuss personnel matters during these closed sessions. Fire district trustees didn't give a reason until the April 3 session.

Marrs then said the closed session was for "the appointment, employment, compensation, discipline, performance or dismissal of specific employees of the public body, including hearing testimony on a complaint lodged against an employee."

Springfield attorney Donald Craven, who specializes in First Amendment issues, noted that Bartell was not a member of the board, and that the trustees had every right to talk about his leadership without him being there.

"To properly go into closed session, there has to be a motion to go into closed session," he said. "That motion has to recite what exemption under the act they're relying on and there has to be a roll call vote on that motion.

"Then when all of that happens, they can go into closed session ...there has to be a verbatim recording of that closed session, which is usually just an audiotape."

The Illinois Attorney General public access counselor may review the audiotape, he said.

Susan Vela: 815-987-1392;; @susanvela

___ (c)2017 Rockford Register Star, Ill. Visit Rockford Register Star, Ill. at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Rail regulators ask Great Lakes Basin for more info before acting on rail line bid


Transportation June 5, 2017

Rail regulators ask Great Lakes Basin for more info before acting on rail line bid

New rail line to bypass Chicago; UPS supports proposal.

By DC Velocity Staff

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Federal rail regulators have asked Great Lakes Basin Transportation Inc. (GLBT), which plans to build a 261-mile rail line connecting with six of North America's seven largest railroads to bypass Chicago, for more information before they can evaluate its bid to resolve the bottlenecks that plague the nation's busiest and most congested rail hub.

In a decision issued Friday, the Surface Transportation Board (STB), which oversees what remains of rail regulation, asked GLBT to provide a list of cities and counties to be served; GLBT only submitted a list of the counties, the agency said. The Board also directed GLBT to file a copy of its latest balance sheet and income statement documents. The Board also rejected GLBT's designation that its list of its 10 principal stockholders and their respective holdings be classified as 'highly confidential."

The agency set a June 22 deadline for filing the additional information.

The privately funded line would skirt Chicago to the south, passing through counties in Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. According to GLBT, the line would permit a train to travel between any two of 26 proposed interchange points in eight hours or less. Currently, it can take as long as 30 hours for trains to navigate Chicago's existing rail network to deliver goods not destined for the city or its environs. GLBT said the line would allow up to 110 trains per day to avoid the Chicago terminal.

In response to concerns that the line would encroach on residential neighborhoods, GLBT said it would build a one- to two-mile buffer zone separating it from towns along the proposed route.

GLBT founder Frank Patton has called the line the largest freight rail project in the Chicagoland region in more than a century.

The proposed railroad is part of an ambitious multi-modal scheme that includes the construction of the "Burnham Expressway," a privately funded toll road designed to route traffic around Chicago by connecting the Indiana Toll Road with five interstate highways, and an airport in Chicago's southern suburbs that would relieve traffic congestion at O'Hare International Airport northwest of the city and at Midway International Airport on Chicago's south side.

Three of the top five executives, Jim Wilson, vice chairman and president of Great Lakes Basin Transportation; Mike Vlaszak, chief legal and administrative officer of the parent; and William Miller, chief commercial officer, spent time at the old Santa Fe Railway, which was acquired by the former Burlington Northern Railroad Co. in 1995 to become what would eventually be known as BNSF Railway.

Two of the six "Class I" railroads, Omaha, Neb.-based Union Pacific Corp. and Norfolk, Va.-based Norfolk Southern Corp., have said they would not participate in the project. Other railroads would have to pay to gain access to the line, and those that aren't interested may believe that the cost would be too dear or that a new line would threaten their own market shares.

However, Atlanta-based UPS Inc., the nation's largest transportation company and a huge user of the rails to move intermodal traffic, supports the proposal.

In an April 28 letter to the STB, UPS said that "any effort to build new rail capacity and bypass the notorious Chicago rail bottleneck would have a material positive impact on the fluidity and velocity of the freight rail network, and a direct benefit to UPS and our customers."

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Saturday, June 3, 2017

GLBR must release largest shareholders June 10


Federal board: Transportation company must reveal shareholders for new railroad through Rock County

Jim Dayton

A proposed 261-mile rail line through Rock County hit a temporary snag Friday after a decision by the federal Surface Transportation Board.

The board directed Great Lakes Basin Transportation to share more details in its application to build a new railroad. The company also must reveal its 10 principal shareholders after the board denied a request for confidentiality.

The board disagreed with Great Lakes Basin's position that a list of stakeholders was “highly confidential” and contained “proprietary and commercially sensitive information.” Great Lakes Basin had said revealing its shareholders could damage the company, but it did not justify why, the board wrote in its decision.

The rail company must file a public list of stakeholders by Friday, June 9, according to the document.

Great Lakes Basin President Frank Patton said Friday he had received the Surface Transportation Board's decision and was studying the document. The company will respond soon, he said.

Mirjam Melin, co-founder of local opposition group Rock Against the Rail, said if the railroad line is eventually approved, landowners along the route have a right to know who is taking over their property.

She applauded the board's decision to reveal shareholders because it showed opposition groups were being heard, she said.

Great Lakes Basin's current proposed route begins in Milton and cuts between Janesville and Beloit. It then turns south into Illinois, loops around Chicago and ends in Indiana.

The company submitted its application to build the rail line May 1. Patton has told The Gazette the rail line will allow trains to avoid congestion in Chicago.

But the Surface Transportation Board believes the application still lacks details.

Great Lakes Basin did not give the board a full list of cities and counties that would be served by the rail line. It also must file a balance sheet and income statement along with other paperwork, according to the document.

The rail company had not provided any financial information because it has not yet conducted business operations. But Great Lakes Basin has retained a contractor for an environmental study, who should appear on a balance sheet as a liability, the board wrote.

Great Lakes Basin must finalize its application by June 22.

Melin believes the application's missing details show the company is "not ready for prime time.”

The board also simplified how opposition groups such as Rock Against the Rail can file legal responses. The groups must give copies of their responses to the board and Great Lakes Basin but not all parties of record, which would have included all citizens who have submitted public comments.

Once Great Lakes Basin submits the missing information, opposition groups will have an undetermined amount of time to file new responses.

Rock Against the Rail does not want the railroad, Melin said.

“By no means is the fight over. This is not the end of it,” she said. “These are just little things along the way that tell us we are being heard and what we asked for is being considered.”

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