Dan Vock

Smart reporting. Great writing.

Feds short of disaster funds to rebuild roads

The record-setting number of disasters in the United States this year caused a huge backlog of state requests for help from the federal government. From Stateline:

Some 39 states are waiting for money to help rebuild their disaster-damaged roads. The requests are stacking up. The Federal Highway Administration now has a backlog of more than $2 billion in requests, or 20 times the amount of money Congress sets aside every year for the agency’s Emergency Relief program.

For states struggling with budget problems, the backlog is yet another fiscal headache. It could delay repairs to damaged infrastructure, and it has already pushed back timelines on other projects. If nothing else, it means state officials must use creative approaches to ensure there is enough money to fix the roads. “States do get reimbursed,” says Nancy Singer, an agency spokeswoman. “But it may take some time.”

 

The Tea Party in Illinois

Members of the Tea Party say they are non-partisan, but their success, especially in a Democratically controlled state like Illinois, depends largely on electing Republicans. My story from Illinois Issues.

To many Tea Party leaders in Illinois, state government needs more people like Arie Friedman.

A pediatrician from Highland Park, Friedman first entered politics just two years ago to protest the passage of President Barack Obama’s federal health care law. Friedman is a business owner, a Navy veteran, a conservative and a candidate for the Illinois Senate. He says he does not need a job as a career politician — joining the state Senate likely would mean a pay cut — and he has no plans to do it forever. Most of all, though, Friedman is fed up with how the state is being run.

But if all that makes Friedman a good Tea Party candidate, it also makes him a good fit in today’s Republican Party. As he campaigns for the state Senate, Friedman has met plenty of folks serving on Republican township boards and showing up at Tea Party meetings. “It’s the exact same people,” he says. “One meeting a month is not enough for them.

“There is a sense that the Tea Party is a separate part of the Republican Party,” he says, “but that has not been my experience. There’s a lot of crossover.”

Still, many leading Tea Party activists in Illinois want to turn their attention to state government during the 2012 elections.

Illinois Tea Party leaders recognized that state government remained firmly in Democratic hands, once Quinn squeaked by Republican Bill Brady to hold onto the governorship. So some 40 Illinois Tea Party leaders gathered on November 20, 2010, at a Lisle hotel to take stock. “We basically decided as a state Tea Party that we would allow some of these other states that had things better under control to work on the federal issues,” says Jane Carrell, coordinator of the Tea Party of Northern Illinois, which is based near Rockford, “while we focused more on our corrupt, lousy state of Illinois and helped to elect a different legislature next election.”

Drive to reverse SB 5 in Ohio is labor’s last, best hope for 2011 win

From Stateline:

Public employee unions spent most of 2011 suffering setback after setback in negotiating sessions, at state capitols and at the polls. But surveys suggest the labor movement is on the verge of a big win in Ohio next week. If it materializes, it could resonate in other states as well.

An explanation of why unions fared so well in Ohio compared to Wisconsin:

Unions had a similar all-hands-on-deck mentality in the recall elections this summer in Wisconsin, when they fell one seat short of flipping the state Senate to Democratic control. But there are key differences that could go a long way toward explaining why labor seems to be faring better in Ohio.

First, the Ohio law would restrict the collective bargaining rights of police and firefighters, who were exempted in Wisconsin. These groups have been the face of the campaign over SB 5. Both sides have used them in their ads.

…The second major difference between the Wisconsin and Ohio elections is the actual matter on the ballot. While the Wisconsin recall elections tended to be proxy battles between labor and business groups, the campaigns also addressed many unrelated issues. Furthermore, the contests were limited to nine Senate districts. Ohio, by comparison, will have a direct statewide vote on a single question.

Ohio voters repealed the law in November.

Democrats face a reckoning in Deep South legislatures

From Stateline:

Bobby Shows, of Ellisville, Mississippi, has represented a rural district in the state House of Representatives for nearly 20 years. But about a year ago, he took a step that used to be rare — and even risky — for any white Democratic lawmaker in the South. He changed parties and joined the Republicans.

“My granddaddy, if he were still living, he would turn over in his grave if he knew I was a Republican, because he served in the legislature during the Depression as a Democrat … when they didn’t have nothing but Democrats,” Shows says. “But I’ll tell you something else, he wouldn’t be a Democrat today with the way the Democrat Party is.”

But times are changing.

This fall, the Mississippi Democratic Party must defend its last power center in Jackson — the state House of Representatives — in the November elections. If Republicans prevail, it would mark a milestone in a process two generations in the making: the takeover of Southern statehouses by a party once anathema to white Southerners.

Republicans are claiming victory in the Mississippi House, and they narrowly — with the help of the lieutenant governor — took over the Virginia Senate in November, too.

The infographic we ran with the story is worth checking out, too.

A record year for disasters—and promises of federal help

The numbers from 2011 are striking. From Stateline:

Through the third week of September, Obama had issued 84 federal disaster declarations at the request of governors. That is more declarations than in any year since the score was first kept six decades ago. And there are still three months left in 2011.

Emergency managers blame the weather, but there has been a noticeable increase ever since Hurricane Katrina. Whatever the cause, many states and the federal government are struggling to keep up with all the requests for help.

Christopher Emrich, a University of South Carolina professor who studies weather-related damage, says the country is experiencing more damage both from major events — like Hurricanes Katrina or Irene — and from “recurrent, chronic events that really don’t make the newspaper headlines.”

“Even if climate change does not influence future hazards,” says Emrich, “we clearly have droughts (now) that we can’t contend with, flooding we can’t contend with, and hurricanes and tropical systems that we have not adopted to.”

The trend is easy to see when plotted over time, as in our infographic here.

Latinos in the Illinois suburbs

This Illinois Issues piece examines the migration of immigrants, particularly Latinos, to suburbs that are often ill-prepared for their arrival.

The Round Lake area, where Mano a Mano is located, has seen a dramatic rise in the Latino population since the agency opened its doors in 2000. The Hispanic population in Round Lake Beach, for example, jumped by nearly 70 percent. Latinos now make up nearly half of the village’s residents.

But Duque, Mano a Mano’s executive director, says Latino concerns are still not a top priority for many local leaders. Many wonder why they should “cater” to their new neighbors. When she asks what they are doing to address the needs of immigrants in the area, many simply highlight the work of her own group, a relatively small nonprofit with a budget of roughly $500,000. Forums at chamber of commerce events rarely address immigration, Duque says, and few Latino leaders get involved with local civic activities. “You know, institutions don’t adapt easily to demographic change,” she says. “Of course, there’s a lot of pressure on every institution in the community.”

Recall elections in Wisconsin test support for Republican program

A Stateline curtain-raiser from the Wisconsin Senate recalls.

MILWAUKEE — When Wisconsin state Senator Alberta Darling, a Republican, first started gearing up for a recall election in the wake of mass labor protests, it looked like the race would focus on her support for a law that substantially weakened labor unions. But now, with little more than a month before the election, the message — if not the opposition — has changed.

These days, Darling’s opponents attack her for cutting aid to schools. They say she should do more to help the unemployed get government checks for a longer period of time. Darling has even come under fire for supporting changes to Medicare, the health insurance program for seniors which is run by the federal government, not the state.

“They are obviously trying to find the issue, or the set of issues, that will build together to recall me,” Darling says. “They are doing a lot of polling, they’re doing a lot of testing, they’re trying a lot of things.”

The race between Darling and challenger Sandy Pasch ended up being the race that determined control of the Wisconsin Senate. Darling fended off the challenge, and Republicans maintained control of the chamber.

As shuttle program ends, states step up roles in space

I don’t think I ever got to write a story about space before, but states will have a larger role than most people realize now that the Shuttle program has ended. My Stateline piece explains:

Five of the eight Federal Aviation Administration licenses to launch rockets into space belong to state governments. (Federal agencies, such as the Air Force and NASA, do not need FAA licenses.) The state-run sites, in addition to Wallops Island, are in Florida, Oklahoma, Alaska and New Mexico. Other jurisdictions in Florida and California hold licenses, too.

But the license is no guarantee of commercial success, especially with so many of the facilities angling for the same customers.

A few of them make their pitch:

Wilson ticks through the advantages he thinks will put the New Mexico facility above its competitors: clear skies and high elevation; proximity to protected air space and research talent at the nearby White Sands Missile Base; and thousands of square miles of sparsely populated land in the area.

And, of course, the facility is brand new. “We always say that Spaceport America is the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport,” Wilson adds. “We’re being built from the ground up.”

In Oklahoma, though, pre-existing facilities are the selling point. Bill Khourie, executive director of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority, argues that the state’s converted Strategic Air Command base offers benefits that cannot be found anywhere else, including control over its own, non-military airspace and a runway that is nearly a mile longer and 100 feet wider than the one in New Mexico. The Oklahoma Spaceport’s control over its airspace means missions would not have to be scrubbed when the military launches missions of its own, Khourie says.

In Khourie’s view, the sheer size of the runway—roughly comparable to that of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.— is crucial for experimental spacecraft now being developed.  “If you’re an engineer, you don’t have to design a high-lift wing with slats and flaps (in order to) reduce your take-off roll or your landing roll,” Khourie says. “So spend your money on other components of the vehicle.”

The Virginia facility operated by MARS presents different selling points. It boasts about its launch trajectory. When rockets take off from Florida, they travel up the Eastern seaboard, across western Europe and then over the Middle East. For private operators, that path across so many populated places drives up the price of insurance. Rockets that lift off from Wallops Island, though, arc over the Atlantic Ocean and remain above water, except a brief time over Brazil.

Deportation record has states reconsidering Secure Communities

From Stateline:

The governors of New York and Massachusetts recently joined Illinois in ending participation in Secure Communities on the grounds that very few of the people being deported have been convicted of serious criminal offenses. The issue is now heating up in California and Colorado, too.

The uproar over Secure Communities is part of the larger debate about how far states should go in cracking down on immigrants who are in the country illegally. Like the controversial immigration law passed by Arizona last year, it raises the question of how deeply local police departments should be involved in enforcing federal immigration laws.

The federal government later announced that Secure Communities was not voluntary, but the legal wrangling continues.

Illinois faces daunting fiscal challenge

Stateline did a five-part series on the financial outlook for some of the biggest states in the Union. I took on Illinois and, not surprisingly, the picture is bleak.

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois — The Illinois General Assembly has given itself five years to fix the state’s dismal fiscal situation. It will be a painful five years.

The countdown is timed to new personal and corporate income taxes approved by lawmakers this January. Most of them will expire in January 2016. Before the extra revenue sources go away, the state somehow needs to get itself back on a permanently stable financial footing. The 2011 tax increases won’t do that by themselves.

In fact, they won’t come close. Even though they bring in more money than the entire state budget of Iowa, legislative forecasters say the only way the tax hikes would lift Illinois out of the fiscal hole it has spent years digging for itself would be if lawmakers kept spending flat through 2014. That’s unlikely, given growing bills for pensions and health care. And right now, at least, it is hard to imagine any more tax increases during the five-year period. So massive program cuts are certain to come, on top of cuts that already have been made.

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