- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Aug. 29, 2016

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Getting tough on gun runners

Sometimes there’s no good alternative to a tough approach to crime.

Gov. Bruce Rauner and a large, bipartisan group of legislators have collectively decided that too many people are being held in state prisons and that the numbers should be reduced.

That may well be true, although one would have to go over each individual case to know for sure.

But the ugly reality of life on the murderous streets of big and small cities, like Chicago and Champaign-Urbana, has a way of upending even the best legislative intentions and prompting elected officials to take action that appears contradictory.

Here’s an example. Last week, Gov. Rauner signed legislation passed by large bipartisan majorities to get tough on gun runners.

Blamed by law officers in Chicago for their role in the ongoing slaughter in minority neighborhoods, gun runners are those who purchase guns legally in other states and then pass them to outlaws in this state. Authorities say that more than half the firearms recovered by police in Illinois come from another state. Indiana, Mississippi and Wisconsin are among the top three states whose firearms sales affect Illinois.

This is a deadly business, one that requires a strong public response. Whether the new legislation meets the standard of effectiveness necessary to address the problem remains to be seen.

But it appears to be a serious attempt. Whether it is or not depends on how aggressive police and prosecutors are in taking advantage of this new tool.

Under the old law, gun runners could be charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm or not having a permit.

Under the new law, individuals found to have the “intent to deliver” face a sentence of from four to 20 years for a first offense and up to 30 years for a second defense.

Republican state Rep. Jim Durkin said the legislation represents a new attack on gun violence, one that for the first time puts a “major focus on who arms the shooter.”

What’s also important about this legislation is that it represents common ground for those on both sides of the gun issue.

Pro-Second Amendment people have no sympathy for those who purchase firearms for the purpose of selling them to criminals. Gun-control advocates want to see effective criminal penalties put in the place for the same reason.

The overall problems, at least from Illinois’ perspective, is that some states are more restrictive than others when it comes to gun sales.

In Illinois, citizens must have a firearms owner’s identification card to make a purchase. That process is designed to screen out individuals with criminal records or a history of mental illness.

But other states, like Indiana, do not require a permit as a condition for purchase. So it’s easy to see why those with suspect intentions would go to Indiana to obtain their weaponry and bring it back here.

The new law won’t have any impact on what occurs in other states. But it puts real bite in the effort to discourage and penalize those who choose to traffic in firearms.

It would be nice to think that legislation of this kind would put a major dent in the problem. But no one should be so naive as to expect grand results.

This represents a small step forward on a monumental problem.

Big cities are awash in illegal guns, and too many people think nothing of using them for even the slightest provocation.

Guns, drugs and gangs drive murder rates. Chicago had 468 homicides in 2015, and it was up to 442 as of roughly a week ago for 2016. Most were gun-related, and it’s a fair bet that almost all of them were illegal, whatever the state of their purchase.


Aug. 28, 2016

The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan

Can coal survive?

When Southern Illinois youngsters of past generations sat on their mothers’ knees and listened to nursery rhymes, they probably heard “Old King Coal.”

It would have been an honest mistake. Coal was the foundation of the Southern Illinois economy for generations. That’s patently obvious even to outsiders touring the region for the first time. It’s difficult to drive anywhere in Southern Illinois without seeing a strip mine, abandoned coal silos or the remnants of a tipple.

Heck, even a couple of our state parks are located on former coal mines.

This brief look into the past is necessary to examine the present, and future, of the coal industry in Southern Illinois.

There are still numerous active mines throughout the region. Coal loading docks are located on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Coal trains and trucks laden with coal remain common sights.

But, like many industries and businesses today, coal is in transition.

Depending on degrees of optimism, the numbers are either encouraging or depressing.

In 1990 Illinois miners produced 62 million tons of coal. By 2003 that number had been sliced in half. Last year that number was back up to 56 million tons and is expected to rise this year.

What happened?

The explanation is much too complex to fit on a “Stop Obama’s War on Coal” bumper sticker.

The industry had to adapt to regulations in the Clean Air Act. The availability of cheap natural gas depressed demand. And, creeping gains by alternative energy sources and environmental concerns played a part.

Employment numbers produce a similarly complex picture. Illinois employed 10,000 miners in 1990, that number is down to 3,500 now. Yet, the state is producing nearly the same amount of coal with one-third the work force.

That illustrates clearly that one part of the coal industry is adapting. Technological advances allow fewer miners to produce more coal more safely than before. What’s more it’s seems clear that the future of the industry depends heavily on the ability to adapt.

Does the future of the industry rest with giants like Peabody Energy? Or, are small companies like Knight Hawk Coal, based in Percy, the future?

Knight Hawk, by all accounts, is a good company to work for. Knight Hawk is a good corporate citizen, supporting area schools and community programs. It started with 15 workers in 1998, serving a niche market. With a solid business plan in place, it now employs about 400 of the 2,200 coal miners currently working south of Interstate 64.

Industry leaders tell us there are 35 to 50 years of coal reserves left in the region. Given current technology and emerging Asian and African markets, it is reasonable to assume coal will remain a vital part of the Southern Illinois economy through that time period.

No crystal ball is absolutely clear, even coal-fired ones.

The estimates provided by leaders of the coal industry are based on the current power grid. What happens if technology improves to the point that homes, and even office buildings, begin producing their own energy?

Perhaps the most troubling issue surfacing in a recent visit with industry leaders was an admission that little energy is being expended on research and development based on possible future environmental restrictions. The industry needs to remain nimble to remain a viable economic engine for Southern Illinois.


Aug. 28, 2016

Chicago Sun-Times

Keep pushing for anti-gerrymandering reform

Last week’s Illinois Supreme Court ruling that knocked an anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendment off the Nov. 8 ballot was a big setback for democracy in our state, but reformers can’t give up.

Gerrymandering - drawing the borders of voting jurisdictions in a way to favor one political party or another - has been around since at least 1812, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry drew up jig-sawed district borders to gain a political edge. Ending the practice won’t happen overnight, and it will take a grassroots rebellion. The pols who now draw the lines, effectively making your vote irrelevant, love things just the way they are.

Supporters of the latest effort to put redistricting reform on the ballot through citizen petitions will decide this week whether to ask the court to reconsider its decision, which would be a long shot. And if that goes nowhere, it’s none too early to start planning another petition drive for the 2018 election. The next remapping of legislative districts in Illinois will take place in 2021.

The Supreme Court nixed the amendment as unconstitutional because a panel that would have helped decide which commissioners would draw new maps would have included the state auditor general. That, the Court ruled, put the reform, as written, beyond “structure and procedure” issues of the Legislature that could be submitted to a citizen initiative. The auditor general, although selected by the Legislature, is not a member of that body.

Unfortunately, the court didn’t address other issues in the lawsuit challenging the amendment, so the legal path forward is not as clear as it could be. But it’s important to note the court did not rule that redistricting reform itself is out of bounds for a citizen initiative.

Reformers just have to find the right wording for an amendment that will fly with the court. Until then, consider your vote - especially in state legislative and congressional elections - as essentially grounded.


Aug. 26, 2016

Rockford Register Star

Illinois Supreme Court denies voters a voice in political mapmaking

Illinois residents spoke loudly and clearly when more than half a million of them signed a petition to change the way Illinois draws its political maps.

On Thursday, a majority of the Illinois Supreme Court told them to shut up, further disenfranchising Illinois residents who have a deep distrust of government.

The court, in a 4-3 decision, ruled that the Independent Maps Amendment didn’t meet constitutional requirements. The majority seems to be setting the bar so high for ballot initiatives that it’s almost impossible for a citizen-led effort to succeed.

That seems contrary to the intent of the Illinois Constitution that gave voters the right to seek changes to legislation.

That’s not just our opinion, but also the opinion of Justice Robert Thomas, who said the majority ruling should include a bright orange “Out of Service” warning sticker for readers to paste over the citizen-initiative section of the constitution.

“Today, just as a critical election board deadline is about to expire, four members of our court have delivered, as a fait accompli, nothing less than the nullification of a critical component of the Illinois Constitution of 1970,” Thomas wrote in a dissent. “The majority has irrevocably severed a vital lifeline created by the drafters for the express purpose of enabling later generations of Illinoisans to use their sovereign authority as a check against self-interest by the legislature.”

The decision is a victory for politicians - 97 percent of whom get re-elected - and a slap in the face to Illinois residents who want more accountability from their elected officials. We doubt 97 percent of voters think Illinois’ elected officials are doing such a good job that they should continue to win elections year after year. (How’s that stopgap budget working for you?)

Incumbents get to keep their cushy jobs - most don’t even get challenged in an election anymore - and voters increasingly will stay home because they feel they can’t make a difference. The system is rigged to favor the politicians and ignore the will of the people.

Democrats control the Illinois General Assembly, the mapmaking process and the Illinois Supreme Court. The court’s four Democrats ruled against Independent Maps while the three Republican justices, led by Thomas, dissented.

That the ruling followed party lines was particularly discouraging. The Independent Maps effort has been a bipartisan endeavor, supported by people like Republican former Gov. Jim Edgar and Democrats like former Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon and William Daley, President Obama’s former chief of staff.

Fair political maps should not fall victim to rank partisanship. Fairly drawn maps increase competition and improve the democratic process. The current mapmaking process offers only the illusion of democracy. Politicians choose their voters - the opposite of what the electoral process should be. Maps are drawn so that the party in power can have as many like-minded folks within district boundaries as possible.

This is the third time an effort to change the mapmaking process has failed and the second time it’s failed in the courts. An attorney friendly to Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, the Democratic power broker, twice has succeeded in preventing voters from having a voice in the matter. Two-thirds of people polled said they would vote to change the mapmaking process.

Although disappointed, supporters likely will try again.

“The Supreme Court rules give us the opportunity to seek rehearing and our legal team is weighing that option,” Dennis FitzSimons, chairman of Independent Maps, said in a statement.

“Drafters of the Illinois Constitution would not recognize the interpretation made by the Supreme Court majority,” FittzSimons said. “According to the majority, voters cannot propose sensible changes to the legislative article that would make a meaningful difference in the way legislative district boundaries are drawn.

“In short, the system is broken, and the way this court interprets the constitution seems likely to prevent its repair.”

The system needs to be repaired and Independent Maps organizers may be able to tinker with their proposed amendment enough so that the court OKs it next time.

We hope so. The people deserve to be heard.

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