Editorial Roundup: Illinois

Chicago Tribune. September 29, 2021.

Editorial: Bears vs. Lightfoot. Mayor, it’s time for a goal-line stand for taxpayers.

The NFL faithful know Don Wachter. He’s the Chicago Bears superfan who shows up at Soldier Field wearing a hat made from a bear’s head, blue and orange face paint and a #46 Bears jersey, a nod to former hard-hitting Bear Doug Plank. Don’t be surprised, Chicago, if some years down the road Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes borrows Wachter’s garb for what could be the first game at a stadium-yet-to-be-built-and-named in his village.

Count Hayes as the Bears’ newest superfan.

The Bears just inked a $197.2 million purchase agreement for Arlington International Racecourse. Churchill Downs Inc., which owns the land, has said it expects to close the sale in late 2022 or early 2023.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s just a purchase agreement, not a groundbreaking. A whole lot of third downs and two-minute warnings await before Arlington Heights can begin practicing its locker room victory speech. The move to the suburbs may never happen. Mayor Lori Lightfoot still wants to work out a deal that keeps the Bears at Soldier Field. She says she’d like to sit down with Bears’ ownership and hear their demands, but for months they’ve kept their distance.

“As a mayor, as a Bears fan, I’m going to continue to do what I can to keep them here in the city of Chicago, and I don’t think that door has closed by any means,” Lightfoot said Wednesday. “But I also need to make sure that, first and foremost, I’m doing what’s best for the taxpayers of the city.”

It does seem, however, as if the McCaskeys are getting fed up with the Chicago Park District, which owns Soldier Field, with a stadium that’s the NFL’s smallest in capacity, and perhaps even with Lightfoot, who in June reacted to the team’s interest in the racetrack parcel with a tweet that reminded the Bears to “focus on putting a winning team on the field, beating the Packers finally and being relevant past October.”

If the Bears end up leaving Chicago for a tract of land once graced by the likes of Secretariat, Citation and Whirlaway, we wish the team all the best. So should Chicago. It’s not uncommon for NFL teams to pack up for the suburbs and a better stadium deal. Recent examples include L.A.’s Rams and Chargers at SoFi Stadium, and the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. In past years, several other teams have left their home cities for suburban stadium venues, which often are close to their fan base and offer acres of convenient parking.

What we cannot countenance, however, is any arrangement that unloads onto the backs of long-suffering taxpayers yet another payment-due notice for a stadium renovation, or a new stadium, that can and should wholly be paid for with private funds. The deal that Mayor Richard M. Daley made with the McCaskeys to renovate Soldier Field in 2002 burdened taxpayers to the tune of $432 million. Daley acquiesced to the Bears despite previously pledging to Chicagoans that “taxpayers are not at risk for any part of this project.” And a good case can be made that the renovation not only messed up a beautiful historic landmark but was never going to work for the Bears long term.

It could be that the Bears are simply trying to leverage Lightfoot into conceding to a raft of demands. We’ve seen this script before. The Bears have talked about Arlington Heights as a potential new home as far back as 1975, and in 1995 had options on land in Hoffman Estates and Aurora. Other dalliances have included Waukegan, Elk Grove Village and even Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. The Bears stayed, and taxpayers paid. Far too much.

Lightfoot says that, as die-hard of a Bears fan as she is, she won’t let that happen. We hope so. The Bears, after all, are a business. If their accountants tell them the team’s better off paying a penalty for breaking its lease with the Park District, which runs through 2033, then so be it. Breaking the lease in five years would cost the team $84 million in penalties, which is tiny compared to the multibillion dollar price tags that new stadiums carry.

The Bears’ calculus is corporate at its core — what’s good for taxpayers is not in their playbook. The latter is Lightfoot’s job, and the job of state government, which would fail Illinoisans miserably if they allowed the Bears to once again tap into taxpayer money for what should be private ventures.

Chicago will always back its Bears, but it should never again be asked to help buoy the team’s balance sheet.

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Chicago Sun-Times. September 29, 2021.

Another day, another dumper: Beef up protection for Lake Michigan

The lake provides drinking water for 7 million people. Millions of people visit the Indiana Dunes National Park. Stop the pollution now.

When a rust-colored fluid spilled from a U.S. Steel plant in Portage, Indiana, into Lake Michigan on Sunday, everyone had the same question: Why does this keep happening at industrial facilities along the shore of our beautiful lake?

The obvious answer: Companies are not doing enough to prevent it. They need to do a better job of protecting the lake, and federal environmental regulators need to do a better of ensuring they do so.

People spotted Sunday’s plume of discolored water — it was easy enough to see — as pollutants flowed from the plant’s outfall into the Burns Waterway and into the lake, about 30 miles east of Chicago. But absorbent booms were not deployed to protect the lake because workers didn’t notice the spill in time. Ironically, U.S. Steel had just signed a consent decree earlier this month stemming from a 2017 leak of hazardous hexavalent chromium, which leaked along the same route into the lake.

The spills keep coming, as regularly as the seasonal birds migrations up and down the shoreline. But with a lot less charm, and good reason to worry.

In May, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management penalized U.S. Steel $950,000 for more than 25 permit violations at Portage Mill from November 2018 to December 2020. The Cleveland-Cliffs steel mill at Burns Harbor, then owned by ArcelorMittal, spilled cyanide and ammonia into the lake in 2019, killing 3,000 fish. At the time, the Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Hoosier Environmental Council said the plant had broken clean-water laws more than 100 times since 2015.

You might think industrial plants along the lake would put in more controls and oversight. Instead, they are always talking about this glitch or that machine that broke down or workers who made poor decisions or didn’t realize there was a problem. Fail-safe is not a part of their vocabulary.

But the area in which they are operating is a priceless national treasure. We should all be doing our utmost to protect it.

Lake Michigan provides drinking water to 7 million people in Illinois and Indiana. The newly designated 15,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Park, one of the most biologically diverse national parks in the country, attracts more than 2 million visitors each year. But those who showed up to enjoy a day of summer-like weather early this week were greeted by closed beaches, including at Portage Beach, one of the park’s three most popular. Also, a northwest Indiana water utility had to shut down an intake facility. The U.S. Steel plant idled its operations.

Under the consent decree, U.S. Steel agreed to pay a $601,242 civil penalty and a reimbursement of more than $625,000 to government agencies for the spill of hazardous hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing pollutant made famous by the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich.” The company also will spend $600,000 over the next three years testing the lake and connected waterways for pollution.

Where are the government environmental sentries who are supposed to be keeping a critical eye on all this? It’s not like they’re dozing off. There just aren’t enough of them.

The position of administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 5, which covers Indiana, has been vacant since Jan. 15. The agency has been hiring staff to reverse the hollowing out that occurred under the Trump administration, but is still some 200 people shy of its staffing during the Obama administration. The job of director at the northwest regional office of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management has been vacant since April. Environmentalists say IDEM has traditionally been under-resourced. It needs more capacity to investigate environmental problems.

Steel mills and other rust-belt industries have lined the lake for generations, providing good jobs. They’re not about to disappear any time soon. But there’s no reason they can’t operate profitably without doing harm to our drinking water or threatening national environmental treasures.

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Champaign News-Gazette. October 1, 2021.

Editorial: Uninsured motorists will be hearing from the state

Without practical enforcement, even the wisest law can be a joke.

When motorists get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, they think about many things that have little to do with the safe operation of that vehicle. The mind positively reels at the range of subjects that can fly through one’s head while people, driving while thinking, try to get where they want to go.

But it’s fair to say there is one subject that rarely comes up, whether other motorists are driving insured vehicles.

That is, of course, unless there’s an accident. Then insurance is a top priority because having it can make a world of difference in incidents where there is property damage and personal injury.

Illinois law requires motorists to have insurance coverage. But the fact is that too many motorists, for a variety of reasons, do not comply. In doing so, they pose great financial risks both to themselves, their passengers and other motorists.

The practice is as reckless as it is common, and that’s why prudent motorists purchase both uninsured and underinsured motorists coverage as part of their overall insurance coverage.

But there’s some good news on the uninsured motorist front. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White’s office has instituted a new program that dramatically improves oversight.

The Illinois Insurance Verification System automatically verifies a vehicle owner’s insurance status twice a year.

The new system is a far cry from the old one, which wasn’t really an oversight system at all. The office randomly checked about 3 percent of the 10 million registered vehicles in Illinois.

That was not an enforcement system, it was an honor system. Needless to say, noncompliance was as rampant as real enforcement was rare.

The new program already has revealed the depth of the problem. Since it began July 1, news reports indicate the state has identified 7,000 uninsured motorists and suspended the registration of nearly 2,700 vehicles.

Under the program, when state officials identify noncompliance, they send a letter to the violator that includes instructions on how to buy insurance or, alternatively, how to prove they are insured.

In the event of noncompliance, the state suspends the vehicle’s registration. To be reinstated, the violator must pay a $100 fine.

The unfortunate fact is that too many motorists live life on the edge. They refuse to purchase insurance, and they ignore warnings that their vehicle’s registration will be uninsured.

Their plan is to hope nothing goes wrong, and one not need to be a genius to know that things do go wrong all the time, sometimes with horrific consequences.

That’s why this stepped-up oversight is a sound way to go. An even better one would be to figure out a way to disable uninsured vehicles in a way that guarantees they do not pose a threat to the traveling public. That, alas, is not currently in the cards.

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