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Hardin County
In crucial step to repurposing shuttered Hardin County Work Camp, Rauner signs bill allowing its sale

ELIZABETHTOWN — The Illinois Department of Corrections now has the authority to sell the shuttered Hardin County Work Camp to the county for $1, a move that enables officials to move forward with a plan to reopen the facility as a multi-county jail.

Outgoing Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday signed a bill to allow the sale.

Efforts began last year to repurpose the former work camp as a multi-county correctional facility. Hardin County Sheriff Jerry Fricker said in September it could be a big help not just to his county, which has a six-bed jail facility, but also to surrounding counties that don't have their own jails.

“If we were able to come up with a bigger facility, it wouldn’t only help us, but neither Pope nor Gallatin County has a jail at this time,” he said, adding that they would have the option to use the new Hardin County facility as it has been proposed.

Fricker said the renovated facility would house between 75 and 100 beds, which could also be a revenue generator for the county.

The standard has been for counties to pay about $35 a day to house an inmate at the state level, Fricker said last year. He added that the county also has considered signing on to house federal inmates, which in other counties is almost double the state rate.

Jessica Fricker is the jail coordinator for the project, and said she is thrilled with the new legislation.

“We are beyond excited. This is a big opportunity for our community,” she said. It had been previously estimated that the new multi-county jail facility could bring as many as 20 jobs.

“That’s really what’s needed most in this area,” Fricker said.

As for next steps, Fricker said she is currently working with grant writers to apply for funding to do the needed renovations — though she said there isn’t a firm estimate on how much they need.

Hardin County Work Camp emptied, boarded up

CAVE-IN-ROCK — Rep. Brandon Phelps said he still plans to push his bill in early January to require the state to operate the Hardin County Work Camp, though the last-ditch effort to keep the facility in Hardin County open faces exceedingly difficult odds.

The old minimum security facility, which shuttered in late 2015 from a funding shortage, will need to be updated to increase security and meet state mandates for jails, Jerry Fricker said last year.

Jessica Fricker also said IDOC has been working with the county to begin the transfer of the property.

In all, Fricker said the project should move pretty quickly with the bill signing being one of the last major hurdles.

Pope County Sheriff Jerry Suits said he is excited just to have another option for where to send his prisoners. He said Hardin County would be nominally farther to drive than Massac or Saline counties, where he currently houses prisoners, but if those facilities are full, this would certainly be a welcome option.

The bill marks one of the last pieces of legislation Rauner will sign during his tenure in office.

“We need to continue to work together, create jobs, and grow Illinois’ economy for all the people of our great state,” Rauner said in a news release from state Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg.

Fowler was the chief sponsor of the legislation and says in the press release that it was a great way to close out a session in the General Assembly.

“I’m excited that we ended the 100th General Assembly by pushing for development and job creation in Southern Illinois,” Fowler said.

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Food Pantries
Southern Illinois food pantries band together to share ideas and lend support

THOMPSONVILLE — In 2004, a small church in Thompsonville began offering food one day a month to families in need in Franklin County.

The first month, about three families showed up. The next, it was 11. Fourteen years later, there are nearly 200 cars lined up well before the church's food pantry doors open at 8 a.m. on the third Saturday of every month. 

“There’s a lot of need, a lot of underserved people,” said Ann Schwengel, co-coordinator of the Thompsonville Community of Christ church's food pantry. “The employment situation and the economy in Southern Illinois adds to the need.”

Across Southern Illinois’ lower 16 counties, there are nearly 100 food pantries working to help keep food on families' tables. Recently, some of them have joined forces to create the Southern Illinois Food Pantry Network. The network aims to allow food pantry volunteers and managers, whether they run a small operation or a large one, “to rely on each other for brainstorming, support and idea sharing,” said Toni Kay Wright, an educator for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education with the University of Illinois Extension, based in Marion.

The network is an initiative of the University of Illinois Extension, Southern Illinois University Carbondale's food and nutrition program, Jackson County Health Department, Southern Illinois Healthcare and the SIU School of Medicine's Center for Rural Health and Social Service Development. It is modeled off other successful food pantry networks in places like San Diego and Illinois’ Metro East St. Louis region.

Wright said one focus of the network is to brainstorm ways to encourage donations of healthier food options. In the future, the network may also be able to seek grants to bolster support to local food pantries. There are other benefits, too. 

Working with neighbors facing difficult, often heartbreaking situations can take a toll on providers. “Sometimes you think, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know if I can keep doing this,’” Schwengel said.

Having others to communicate with who understand the unique challenges and rewards of running a food pantry is important, Schwengel noted. That’s why she attended the network’s first meeting last fall.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler 

Volunteer Jason Skidmore organizes items on shelves at the Du Quoin Food Pantry on Thursday morning in Du Quoin. Many of Southern Illinois' food pantries are collaborating to form the Southern Illinois Food Pantry Network through an initiative by University of Illinois Extension, SIU's food and nutrition program, Jackson County Health Department, Southern Illinois Healthcare and the SIU School of Medicine's Center for Rural Health and Social Service Development.

Ruth Hawkins, treasurer and co-manager of the Du Quoin Food Pantry, said she also believes there is an advantage to getting to know the people running other food pantries throughout the region. It allows for sharing ideas about what works and what doesn’t, she said. The Du Quoin Food Pantry serves residents of Perry County, and Hawkins said it’s also helpful to know other food pantry operators to direct people to if they show up at her location but live in another county.  

Wright said the network had its first meeting this fall; about 15 food pantry operators attended. A topic emerged during discussion that Wright said she had not anticipated as a shared concern: how to keep managers and volunteers safe if a client escalates. Food pantry operators say that, on occasion, people seeking food assistance become agitated if they are turned away either because they have already reached their allowed allotment for that month or they do not meet a residency requirement. As well, people may be experiencing substance abuse or poor mental health, or simply be having a bad day based on the circumstances that brought them there in the first place.

Given this concern, the network’s next meeting will include a discussion about ways that food pantries can partner with local police departments to keep managers, volunteers and clients safe, and tips for de-escalating tense situations, Wright said.

The next meeting will be at 2 p.m. on Jan. 23 at John A. Logan College in room F119. If food pantry operators have questions about the network, Wright can be reached at 618-993-3304. 

Recreational Marijuana
In Illinois, marijuana legalization debate shifts from 'when' to 'how'

SPRINGFIELD — Proposed plans for the legalization of recreational marijuana use in Illinois have shifted from "when" to "how."

Democratic Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker campaigned on the legalization issue and its corresponding tax revenue of as much as $1 billion a year. And Democratic Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan is on board.

Two key state Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, have been meeting with interest groups ahead of the legislative session that began this week. Both have worked on the issue for years.

Marijuana has been federally outlawed since 1937, but its surrounding stigma has been eased in the past few decades. President Jimmy Carter called for its national decriminalization 40 years ago, and 10 states now allow the recreational use of marijuana after voters in Michigan approved such a measure.

Although studies have reached differing conclusions on the impact legalization has on usage rates, advocates contend it stays about the same — those who used it before it was legal are the ones using it after legalization.

"You see some decreases among youth because you're cutting off their access. The guy slinging weed on the corner in my neighborhood, I've never seen him 'card,' not once," Cassidy said. "And you see slight increase in people over 50 because their knees hurt."

The Steans-Cassidy plan would allow Illinois residents to purchase and possess 30 grams of marijuana for recreational use. Non-residents would be allowed 15 grams.

Law enforcement agencies remain opposed, fearing the law would allow for unregulated home cultivation, increase police officers' difficulty in recognizing marijuana impairment in motorists and not require dosages on labels in the case of edible products. They also disagree with Cassidy's assessment that young people wouldn't have the same access.

"People are saying this (legalization) is inevitable because of the changes in the legislature and the governor's chair, and it's clever on the part of the sponsors to keep repeating that in the hopes that people will believe it," said Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. "I don't know that we should assume that."

Steans said lawmakers commissioned a study from an economist to get a handle on necessary capacity.

Advocates say the state's medical cannabis program, adopted in 2014, is highly-regarded nationally, and Steans said its tight regulations bode well for the adult-use program. The Illinois Department of Public Health administers medical cards for approved patients, while the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation monitors dispensaries and the Department of Agriculture regulates cultivation sites.

Dan Linn, executive director of the state chapter of the pro-cannabis lobbying group NORML, said cultivation centers have been frustrated because they have more capacity than is currently necessary for as few as 45,000 patients receiving state-approved medical cannabis cards. But that doesn't mean they have the capacity, nor do the other 56 dispensaries, to meet recreational demand.

"With weekly inspection by the state, we (in Illinois) already have a safe and quality-controlled product," Linn said.

While proponents believe revenue from legalization would help police agencies better equip officers on the road to judge impaired motorists, Wojcicki said that, currently, only a time-consuming blood test can verify marijuana use.

Studies released separately in October by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found higher rates of traffic accidents in states that have legalized recreational pot.

"We just have to say, are we OK with that?" Wojcicki said.

At the border, Trump moves closer to emergency declaration

McALLEN, Texas — Taking the shutdown fight to the Mexican border, President Donald Trump edged closer Thursday to declaring a national emergency in an extraordinary end run around Congress to fund his long-promised border wall. Pressure was mounting to find an escape hatch from the three-week impasse that has closed parts of the government, cutting scattered services and leaving hundreds of thousands of workers without pay.

Trump, visiting McAllen, Texas, and the Rio Grande to highlight what he says is a crisis of drugs and crime, said that "if for any reason we don't get this going" — an agreement with House Democrats who have refused to approve the $5.7 billion he demands for the wall — "I will declare a national emergency."

About 800,000 workers, more than half of them still on the job, were to miss their first paycheck today under the stoppage, and Washington was close to setting a dubious record for the longest government shutdown in the nation's history. Those markers — along with growing effects to national parks, food inspections and the economy overall — left some Republicans on Capitol Hill increasingly uncomfortable with Trump's demands.

Asked about the plight of those going without pay, the president shifted the focus, saying he felt badly "for people that have family members that have been killed" by criminals who came over the border.

Trump was consulting with White House attorneys and allies about using presidential emergency powers to take unilateral action to construct the wall over the objections of Congress. He claimed his lawyers told him the action would withstand legal scrutiny "100 percent."

Such a move to bypass Congress' constitutional control of the nation's purse strings would spark certain legal challenges and bipartisan cries of executive overreach.

A congressional official said the White House has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to look for billions of dollars earmarked last year for disaster response for Puerto Rico and other areas that could be diverted to a border wall as part of the emergency declaration. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.

"We're either going to have a win, make a compromise — because I think a compromise is a win for everybody — or I will declare a national emergency," Trump said before departing the White House for his politically flavored visit to the border. He wore his campaign-slogan "Make America Great Again" cap throughout.

It was not clear what a compromise might entail, and there were no indications that one was in the offing. Trump says he won't reopen the government without money for the wall. Democrats say they favor measures to bolster border security but oppose the long, impregnable barrier that Trump envisions.

Vice President Mike Pence shuttled through meetings on Capitol Hill, but there were no signs of any breakthroughs. Pence panned, for now, a last-ditch effort led by GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to strike a bipartisan immigration compromise. It would have linked wall funding to deportation protections for some immigrants, including young people here illegally known as Dreamers. But Pence, in a briefing with reporters, said the president prefers to wait for the courts to decide that issue.

Graham sounded deflated after talks among senators essentially collapsed, and said, "It is time for President Trump to use emergency powers" to fund wall construction.

Pence said the president has "made no decision" about declaring a national emergency, but added, "The president's going to get this done one way or the other."

Visiting a border patrol station in McAllen, Trump viewed tables piled with weapons and narcotics. Like nearly all drugs trafficked across the border, they were intercepted by agents at official ports of entry, he was told, and not in the remote areas where he wants to extend tall barriers.

Still, he declared: "A wall works. ... Nothing like a wall."

He argued that the U.S. can't solve the problem without a "very substantial barrier" along the border, but offered exaggerations about the effectiveness of border walls and current apprehensions of those crossing illegally.

Sitting among border patrol officers, state and local officials and military representatives, Trump insisted he was "winning" the shutdown fight and criticized Democrats for asserting he was manufacturing a sense of crisis in order to declare an emergency. "What is manufactured is the use of the word 'manufactured,'" Trump said.

As he arrived in Texas, several hundred protesters near the airport in McAllen chanted and waved signs opposing a wall. Across the street, a smaller group chanted back: "Build that wall!"

On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the president of engaging in political games to fire up his most loyal supporters, suggesting that a heated meeting Wednesday with legislators at the White House had been "a setup" so that Trump could walk out of it.

Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell warned on Thursday that an extended partial government shutdown could damage the U.S. economy and starve the central bank of key data it needs to make monetary policy decisions.