November 18, 2013
The (Alton) Telegraph
Ethanol sputtering as public policy
The golden promise of ethanol's early years is running headlong into the laws of supply and demand.
Illinois is second only to Iowa in corn production, so it's no surprise the administration of President Barack Obama, the state's former junior senator from Chicago, staunchly supports the biofuel. As a candidate, Obama made ethanol a key part of his plan to combat climate change.
Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, signed the Energy Independence and Security Act in 2007, which required that 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel be produced by 2022. Each year, refineries have to blend ever-increasing amounts of biofuels into the nation's gasoline.
When that law was written, gasoline consumption was rising. Since then, for reasons ranging from higher fuel efficiency standards to changing driving habits, gasoline consumption has fallen and is projected to continue to decrease until 2040.
The result is that ethanol is approaching the "blend wall," the point at which the amount of ethanol required to be added to the gasoline supply exceeds the limit of 10 percent available at most service stations and recommended by auto manufacturers.
A push by ethanol backers to move to a 15 percent standard has met resistance from consumer groups and business associations, which argue that consumers would be forced to pay higher prices at the pump and the grocery store.
Corn prices are slowing production at ethanol plants because producers are having difficulty turning a profit. Since the federal law passed, corn prices have soared from $2 and $3 a bushel to $7, according to the Institute for Energy Research.
Besides ethanol's economic shortcomings, there's an environmental cost to planting so much corn. A series of Associated Press articles found 5 million acres of land set aside for conservation have been turned into farms during Obama's administration. Fertilizer has contaminated rivers and created a lifeless zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Digging up grasslands releases greenhouse gases, and ethanol factories usually burn coal or natural gas.
Corn-based ethanol was supposed to be a bridge to next-generation biofuels that require less land and energy. But with those technologies still in the nascent stages and the nation in the midst of an energy boom, it may be time for the federal government to take its foot off the ethanol accelerator.
November 18, 2013
The (Champaign) News-Gazette
Always a job for a friend
Need any more proof of the divide between the taxpayers and elected officials who promise to protect the public interest? If so, read on.
Did you hear the one about the political payroller who had nine aliases and was paid for working two state jobs at the same time?
Unfortunately, that's no joke; it's just more of the same in Illinois, a state where political connections routinely land unqualified people in important public jobs.
That's what happened in the case of Marlene Liss, a 36-year-old woman who converted her personal friendship with Secretary of State Jesse White into an $80,000-a-year position as chief deputy director of securities in White's office.
It was Liss' job to protect the public from those touting unscrupulous investment schemes. But it turns out that it's Liss from whom the public should have been protected.
The inspector general in White's office recently reported that Liss sought payment for her time in the secretary of state's office while she was simultaneously being paid for working five hours a day as a home health care provider.
The inspector general also found that Liss falsely claimed to have bachelor's and master's degrees, reported a phony address as her residence and used nine different aliases on various public documents.
The U.S. attorney's office, according to news reports, is investigating, so the chances appear good that Liss will be held accountable in the courts.
But who's to be held accountable for hiring Liss?
White reportedly hired Liss in June 2010, assigning her a few months later to work in the secretary of state's securities department, which is charged with regulating the securities industry and protecting investors. White's office indicated that White met her at a print shop she operated and hired her after they became friends.
It's understandable that White may not have known about her unsavory background. But what kind of background check was performed before she was put on the public payroll? Obviously, there was no adequate vetting. But then it's only tax money.
On the scale of Illinois' political sins, this ranks pretty low. But that's only because so many worse things occur with disturbing regularity. Nonetheless, the Liss case shows once again how far removed our elected officials are from those they purport to serve.
November 17, 2013
The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan
Voice of The Southern: Pension reform needs action now
State of Illinois retirees and those nearing retirement from state jobs are fearful of what might happen when lawmakers finally get serious about pension reform.
The state's unfunded pension liability is estimated at the $100 billion mark, the result of years of financial neglect and mismanagement. Money that should have gone into state workers' pension plans was instead applied to other government expenses.
That doesn't sit well with pensioners and those on the verge of retirement. They kept their end of the pension agreement by making steady contributions from their paychecks. They expect to receive the retirement benefits they were promised by the state.
At the same time, the state simply cannot let the pension debt continue ballooning at the $5-million-per-day clip Gov. Pat Quinn described in summer. It's not as terrifying a prospect as a debt increasing by $17 million per day, as Quinn earlier warned, but it certainly warrants attention. And fast.
Unfortunately, the recently concluded veto session of the General Assembly failed to produce any movement toward pension reform.
The pension committee's latest working proposal reportedly would reduce the 3 percent annual compounded cost-of-living adjustments in retirement benefits to half of the rate of inflation. It also would reduce employee contributions by 1 percent. Elements such as raising the retirement age and moving to a 401(k)-style plan still are being negotiated.
House Speaker Michael Madigan recently said in media reports he's prepared to pass a "meaningful" pension reform bill and hopes it will happen before the end of the year.
Let's hope for a workable and constitutionally sound reform package to be passed into law before the end of the year — one that honors commitments made to retirees and those nearing retirement. It might not be enough to be considered a Christmas miracle, but a reasonable plan to pay down and eventually eliminate the pension debt would be a great gift to taxpayers who continually wonder where their money goes.
November 17, 2013
(Arlington Heights) Daily Herald
It's time for bipartisan solutions on health care
You may remember Joe Walsh. A flamboyant populist conservative from the suburbs, he ran for Congress in 2010 because, he said, he was worried about his country. He served for two years before Tammy Duckworth and redistricting turned him out of office.
He's now a radio broadcaster, doing what he does best — talk and refer often to himself by name, Thursday night, his primary topic was the new federal health care law and its mounting problems. The gist of what Walsh had to say: Republicans should take time to "enjoy" the debacle, "laugh" at the Democrats, "laugh" at the news media that he sees as complicit in propping up "our black president," and "laugh" at the American people who presumably weren't critical enough of the health care legislation.
Over and over, Walsh emphasized that the Republican response should be laughter.
So much, apparently, for being worried about his country.
We are, this morning, frustrated by the inept implementation of the health care law and outraged by the disingenuous rhetoric its supporters including President Barack Obama used to promote it.
But we are, this morning, frustrated even more by the lack of public spirit on the part of our so-called public servants.
The jobs of the people we elect are to solve problems. Yet, we have, this morning, no confidence that that is what our elected representatives will strive to do. And we doubt most of the public has much confidence about that either.
The nation suffocates under the toxic partisan atmosphere in Washington. Instead of solving problems, the people we elect war in constant political campaigns.
This is true of both parties — Democrats and Republicans.
The response to the problems with the rollout of the new health care law ought not to be laughter. It ought to be fixing the problems.
This affects real people.
There is no better time for Obama to reach across the aisle in a spirit of genuine collaboration. And there is no better time for Republicans of good will to genuinely be receptive.
The jobs of the people we elect are to solve problems. When it comes to health care, it's time they start solving them.
November 15, 2013
Teaching teen minds to think
Martha Warren could have found an easier path than teaching youngsters in a poverty-wracked community. She could have found an employer with a better track record than East St. Louis School District 189.
But she has spent a decade where she is most needed.
Warren was among about 30 metro-east teachers recently awarded the Emerson Excellence in Teaching Award. The fact that she received one for working in an environment that has defeated so many is especially impressive.
We also got a chuckle from the fact that she considers herself "a nut," yet in the next breath sums up what we see as the essence of common-sense teaching: "I'm not here to be their friend. I'm here to help them think, not tell them what to think."
Teens have plenty of people ready to tell them what to think, whether it be peers pushing easy answers, self-destructive behaviors and anti-education sentiments or adults furthering their own aspirations and agendas.
We celebrate the Warrens who follow the road less taken and teach youngsters to navigate their own paths. Thank you, and congratulations on much more than the award.