Retrospective Part 3: Three decades of public affairs journalism

Dec 1, 2004

Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same. A perusal of back issues of this magazine yields a striking continuity in many of the policy questions state officials have wrestled with over the past 30 years. We highlight a few here. This long view offers an opportunity to get in on the beginning, then see how things turned out. In some instances, as we point out, even the best intentions can go awry. Whether public officials cover the same ground or change course, whether they move forward or fall back, the past can provide a bridge to the future. Throughout next year, we?ll explore some of the challenges Illinoisans are likely to face over the next three decades. But in the final months of this year, we take a look back. 

The Editors

Energy resources
In the mid-1970s, Illinois policymakers weighed the relative merits of coal power and nuclear energy. They were still doing so three decades later.

With last winter's energy shortage as a sharp memory, State leaders began debate last spring on an energy program for Illinois. Spurred on by the spiralling price of fuel, both the executive and legislative branches of State government sought ways to increase energy supplies through the application of new techno-logy to existing resources. Although oil and natural gas presently supply nearly 80 percent of the nation's fuel, both of these sources are limited, and the nation's massive coal deposits appear to be the best hope for achieving Washington's goal of "energy self- sufficiency" by 1980. One-sixth of the nation's coal lies under Illinois soil, and the thrust of energy activity in Illinois, planners agree, will be to increase production of this black gold, estimated to amount to 150 billion tons.

William Lambrecht, January 1975

 

So why is nuclear power poised to make a comeback in Illinois? Given its history, a resurgence wouldn't seem likely. But that's exactly what is happening in this state, and in some other states that have nuclear plants.

The pending $8.2 billion merger of Commonwealth Edison's parent company, Unicom Corp., with Phila- delphia-based nuclear giant PECO Energy will make Illinois' nuclear plants part of the largest fleet of commercial nuclear reactors in the nation and the third-largest in the world. The merger will affect the vast majority of the state's electric customers — the 3.4 million customers Chicago-based ComEd has in northern Illinois, as well as the downstate customers of Decatur-based Illinois Power, which recently sold its only nuclear plant in Clinton to a partnership shared by PECO.

Stephanie Zimmermann, May 2000

 

Water commerce
Locks and dam renovation could be the longest-running political controversy.

The navigation facility Illinois politicians like to proclaim as "more important than the Panama Canal" is located on the Mississippi River, 26 miles north of St. Louis, outside the town of Alton.

During harvest, when the grain barges fill the river, the two-hour process of dividing the huge, 1,000-foot long barge to fit the creaky, leak-ridden 600-foot Alton locks backs up the barges for miles, creating delays of up to 18 hours, sometimes longer.

The modern river is dredged, dammed and tamed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to maintain a nine-foot deep channel for commercial barge traffic. The coal and petroleum barges head north for the industrial centers of Chicago and Minneapolis. The grain barges make their way south to New Orleans, export bound.

Watching these "river traffic jams" does little to explain why the 40-year-old Locks and Dam No. 26 should have created a major uproar in the nation's capital. But Congress has finally taken action that reverses nearly 200 years of federal policy on the waterways and, it has been argued, will fundamentally reshape the nation's transportation future.

The legal and legislative battle over building a new and bigger Locks 26 to accommodate those 1,000-foot long barge tows has been going on for well over four years.

The present structure has been called a dangerous "bottleneck," threatening river transportation throughout the entire Mississippi River Basin, and the proposal to replace it has been called the "opening wedge" in a Corps plan to quadruple barge traffic on the Mississippi. 

Michael Isikoff, January 1979 

 

While a proposed lock expansion project would put some additional stress on the river ecosystem, environmental groups say a multibillion dollar overhaul shouldn't happen without designating money to mitigate the degradation that has accrued since 1930, when the locks began directing river traffic. And they agree with taxpayer groups, who argue that reconfiguring the river controls would represent an undeserved handout for the agricultural industry. They point to statistics showing stagnant growth in barge traffic over the past 20 years and predict minimal increases over the next five decades.

Those arguments are at the core of a controversy that halted lock expansion efforts four years ago. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that has spent 11 years and $70.6 million studying the issue, was scheduled in 2001 to deliver a report charting the river's future for five decades to come.

The corps was weighing the economic benefits of installing new, longer locks where congestion strains the flow of commerce. As it turns out, the scale was rigged. In early 2000, Donald Sweeney, a senior economist from the corps' St. Louis District, came forward with evidence senior officials manipulated data to justify the project after the study initially found that lock expansions weren't worth the cost. A few months later, a corps economist working out of Rock Island backed up Sweeney's allegations.

Shortly after, the study was suspended, restructured, then restarted.

Pat Guinane, July/August 2004

 

Economic subsidies
In the late 1980s, Illinois joined other states in offering financial incentives to lure private businesses to stay or locate here. The joint venture between Chrysler Motors Corp. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. of Japan secured such subsidies on the promise of 2,800 new jobs. In 1989, Illinois Auditor General Robert Cronson charged the state had spent $86,669 to secure each job at the Diamond-Star Motors plant at Normal. The administration estimated the true figure was closer to $29,000 per job. In any event, this fall, some of the workers who were hired in the 1980s got pink slips as the plant announced plans to lay off more than 1,000 workers. ?Smokestack chasing? may be passe, but in the late 1990s, the state subsidized a proposed fish farmer cooperative. In September, Auditor General William Holland found the state Agriculture Department did a poor job of overseeing $6.9 million in co-op grants. 

Diamond-Star Motors was incor- porated on October 7, 1985, and the ground-breaking took place on April 18, 1986. That ground-breaking ceremony was unique in that it included the ministrations of a Shinto priest and the spreading of Japanese soil on the original prairies. As someone who has studied and written about the rise and fall of the automobile culture in the Midwest, I could not help but be struck by this juxtaposition of Oriental and Occidental cultures in the American heartland, a place which, after all, created the assembly line, mass- merchandising and outsourcing — all concepts without which Diamond-Star itself would be unthinkable. And I could not avoid the inevitable questions: Is this new company better than its American predecessors? Does the much-vaunted Japanese-style "team" or "circle" method of production really work? And what would happen if all automobile production in the continental United States fell under the aegis of Japan Inc.? Finally, will the active role played by the state of Illinois in attracting such ventures (and "sweetening" the deal with various tax and educational incentives) redound to our ultimate credit or shame? 

Daniel L. Guillory, July 1989 

 

Indeed, interest in "farming" fish has increased in the five years since fish biologist Jerry Kaat moved to southern Illinois. Kaat, who lives in Marissa, urges more locals to take advantage of the countless small ponds and lakes in the area, many of which are ideal for raising fish. "Anyone with a quality water source can do this. There are numerous places here, so there's lots of potential." 

Kaat, formerly with the federal fish and wildlife agency, also has been working with some of that region's state lawmakers to create a fish co-op, like those that already exist for such commodities as beans, corn and hogs. He argues the venture could buy fish food and equipment in bulk, getting the goods at cheaper rates and passing the savings on to enterprising individuals. The co-op could work with the soon- to-be fish processing center at the Pinckneyville prison. That would help to lower costs, too, because the center is expected to process fish at nearly half the cost of private commercial operations.

This spring lawmakers agreed, approving start-up funding of $1 million a year for 10 years, which supporters argue will enable the co-op to become self-sufficient.

Sean Crawford, June 1999

Short takes

Planning agencies and existing facilities so effectively insisted that the construction of hospitals and other health care facilities was on a runaway course, that in June 1974 the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 1609 which provided that no new facility could be built and no existing one modified without the approval of the [Comprehensive State Health Planning Agency].
Edna McConnell, February 1975

Former U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard of Carbondale takes the reins at the reincarnated Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board, a state oversight panel under federal investigation.
Online, Pat Guinane, 
September 2004 

• • •

A struggle to establish its independent status as a nonpartisan constitutional agency, free from outside bureaucratic controls, characterized the first year 
of the newly created State Board of Education. 
Laurie Joseph Wasserman, 
May 1976 

[Gov. Rod] Blagojevich signed a bill that granted him authority to replace seven members of the state board and then tapped Chicago lawyer Jesse Ruiz, who served as chief counsel 
to the Legislative Latino Caucus, board chair. 
Online, Beverley Scobell, 
September 2004

Illinois Issues, November 2004