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Op-Ed: Free Beer: How Illinois could become the country’s craft capital

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Illinois brewing is as old as the state itself. We’re good at it. Three key ingredients – a major population center, access to gobs of fresh water, and world-class agricultural aptitude – position the Land of Lincoln as a potential powerhouse in the industry.

That potential is bearing fruit from little Ava, Illinois, where in the shadow of Shawnee National Forest, Scratch Brewing Company is making some of the most interesting beer in the country with prairie plants foraged on their property, to Chicago’s Band of Bohemia, the world’s first Michelin-starred brewpub.

But our laws, sadly, don’t reflect that ingenuity.

Too many rules governing how to make a living in Illinois beer hearken back to Prohibition panic.

The good news: Those laws are getting better. The chaser: There’s much more to be done. Illinois can be a true craft beer beacon if the state got smarter about this still-booming industry that’s starting to mature.

Two reforms signed into law by Gov. Bruce Rauner this summer are examples of being smart. Or stopping stupidity, at least.

The first reform fixed a byzantine process often necessary to serve booze. If you wanted an exemption from the Prohibition-era state law banning businesses within 100 feet of a school, church or hospital from obtaining a liquor license, you needed approval from the entire General Assembly in Springfield. Rauner rightly railed against this and stopped signing bills granting those exemptions. Now the process is driven by local governments rather than the state.

The second reform ended a backward ban on what taprooms could sell. Most brewpubs were not allowed to serve beers or ciders from other breweries, even if they collaborated with them to make the product. Now they can. The new law also allows for breweries to more easily store some of their product off-site.

These are simple, necessary changes. But they’re not enough.

What still needs fixing lies within the politically clouted world of beer distributors, a protected industry made much too powerful entirely through state law, at the expense of brewers and consumers.

Imagine if Illinois passed a law tomorrow saying you couldn’t buy a winter coat directly from your favorite brand. Instead, the law created a new class of coat “distributors” that got a cut of the business. The coat company would be forced to contract with an exclusive distributor, and the distributor would drop off the coat at their favored stores.

Sound silly? That’s how most of the beer business has functioned since the 1930s. Illinois is no different. And the 100-or-so licensed beer distributors in the state have a major stake in making sure that remains the case. This set-up is called the “three-tier system.” The producer is the first tier, the distributor is the second tier, and the final point of sale is the third tier. There are a bundle of special laws ensuring the tiers shall not cross.

It’s no surprise that the most important change allowing craft beer to sprout up at all in Illinois came through subverting this archaic model. A self-distribution law lawmakers passed in 2011 meant little brewers didn’t have to hire a middleman to deliver their goods.

“It really allowed smaller brewers to interact directly with consumers and retail,” said Illinois Craft Brewers Guild Executive Director Danielle D’Alessandro. “That has led to tremendous growth.”

Illinois had about 40 craft breweries in 2010 and is now home to more than 200, according to the guild. But out of the top 50 craft breweries in the U.S. in terms of sales, just one calls Illinois home, according to the Brewers Association: Revolution Brewing in Chicago.

Imagine what entrepreneurs could do if Illinois gave every brewery complete control over their own distribution.

Beyond the whole three-tier system being a drag, Illinois has other provisions making things worse for brewers to the benefit of distributors, who have spent millions of dollars on state politics over the years.

Due to provisions in Illinois’ “franchise law,” for example, a distributor can drop a brewer as a customer or sell the rights to distribute their product at any time. But once a brewery sells its beer to that distributor, it can be extremely difficult for the producer to break off the contract. It’s not a level playing field.

A 1999 law extending this franchise-style privilege to wine and spirits distributors was a case study in how powerful political interests can hold small businesses over a barrel. A blitz of money from liquor lobbyists led to the passage of the Wine and Spirits Fair Dealing Act, also known as the “Wirtz law,” (named for late Illinois distributor William Wirtz). It was later struck down by a federal district court for violating the commerce clause.

But the franchise law remains for beer brewers.

In fact, a dispute arising from the franchise law led one of the Midwest’s most beloved breweries, New Glarus Brewing in Wisconsin, to pull out of Illinois altogether in 2002, never to return.

State lawmakers should seize the momentum in Illinois. Let your people brew. And transport. And sell.

Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network. Austin can be reached at aberg@illinoispolicy.org.

For more INN News visit ILnews.org 

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Illinois News Network, publisher of ILNews.org, is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media company dedicated to the principles of transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility in the state of Illinois. INN is Illinois’ pioneering non-profit news brand, offering content from the statehouse and beyond to Illinoisans through their local media of choice and from their digital hub at ILNews.org. Springfield Daily was granted republishing permission by INN.

2019 Election

Opinion: Gregory wins by two

Thomas Clatterbuck

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Springfield Daily does not endorse candidates. We have always held that it is our job to make information available to the public, and for voters to make up their own minds. But the situation in Ward 2 is no longer an election. All of the votes were cast months ago. Now, it is a question over procedure, and deciding which votes should be counted.

It is an unenviable decision. One of best elements of voting is the final decision is clear-cut. All of the ballots are counted, and whoever has the most wins. No one wants to overrule the will of the voters and declare one candidate the winner. Yet that is the decision that is now before the city council.

There are two sets of ballots still in question, and they will determine the final outcome. The first are two ballots where the election judge’s initials is not on the line. Because ballots must be properly initialed to be valid, two votes for Shawn Gregory were thrown out.

The other set is more complicated. Voters at The Mary Bryant Home, a home for blind and visually impaired individuals, and other areas used assistants to fill out their ballots. These ballots needed to be supported by affidavits that affirm the individuals helping fill out the ballots are doing so solely to help individuals who are unable to vote without assistance. There are serious shortcomings in how the affidavits were filled out, resulting in 13 ballots being invalidated. After calculating the relative vote totals in each precinct, Simpson lost 4.3 votes and Gregory lost 2.6 votes.

Based on the recommendation of John Mehlick, the hearing officer for the recount, Simpson should be declared the winner by a margin of 0.361 of a vote. This final count of 459.7219 to 459.3609 does not include the two votes with the misplaced initials, or those with bad affidavits. Mehlick argued that we must demand excellence from our election officials, and that both errors are invalidating.

Apples to apples?

Treating both situations as equivalent would be a mistake. Based on the arguments presented both in writing and before the city council Tuesday night, it is clear there are significant difference between the two situations.

The ballots that were initialed by the judge have every element necessary for the ballot to be considered valid. Many ballots were invalidated because they lacked any initials. But for these two, the only element in question was the placement of the judge’s initials. No one is disputing that the initials are those of a legitimate election judge. Although it makes intuitive sense that the initials be on the provided line, and the County Clerk teaches its election judges to initial on the line, there is no statutory requirement that the initials be on that line. And for both ballots in question, the initials are only a few inches away from the line.

The ballots with affidavits, however, are missing many key elements that make a ballot valid. Signatures are not only on the wrong lines, there are required signatures that are totally absent. There is no question that these ballots would be invalid under any circumstances due to these deficiencies.

Failing to properly fill these documents out is made worse by the fact these ballots were filled out by assistants. People with disabilities should be allowed to vote, even if they need assistance. But because the right to vote is so precious, and the impact of a single vote is so great, these assistants must be held to an even higher standard than the average election official. How can we trust a person filled out the ballot correctly if they did not fill out the accompanying affidavit correctly?

It’s about the voters

I have great respect for all four candidates who ran in Ward 2, but that is not relevant to this discussion. In the end, this cannot be about who should be the alderman for Ward 2. It is regrettable that anyone besides the voters in Ward 2 will decide the outcome. And no one wants to invalidate any votes, especially votes from people with disabilities. But there are still rules, and the rules need to be enforced.

People make mistakes in filling out their ballots, and that has consequences. Some people vote for too many candidates. Some people fail to get their ballots initialed by an election judge at all. And tragically, 13 people trusted the wrong person to assist them in filling out their ballots and affidavits. None of those votes can or should be counted.

When all of the evidence is looked at, and all the arguments are heard, Shawn Gregory is entitled to those two additional votes, and to become Ward 2 alderman.

You can watch the discussion from Tuesday in the video at the top of this article, and read all of the documents from the recount here.

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Local

Golf revenue continues to fall in Jacksonville

Thomas Clatterbuck

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2018 was another bad year for the Jacksonville’s Links golf courses. Like most municipal golf courses, the Links loses money every year. It was clear as early as August that 2018 was going to be a particularly bad year for the courses. The recently released 2018 audit shows just how dire the situation is becoming for the courses.

Total operating losses totaled $198,000. This is nearly triple the losses suffered in 2012. Expenses were up eight percent since ’12. The real driver is that revenue is down 24 percent, from $377,000 in ’12 to just $288,000 last year. This is why the cash infusion from the city came much earlier in the year; the Links was struggling to cover payroll expenses due to low revenue. And unlike in years past when the bailout is needed in the winter months, last year the Links needed help during the fall.

Fixing the root problems at the course will not be easy. Golf participation is declining nationally, and Jacksonville has not been spared from these trends. But the first step is admitting there is a problem. A golf advisory committee was created in February 2018 and they did provide some good recommendations for improvements. But their last meeting was more than a year ago. In full council meetings, council members are reluctant to even acknowledge that revenue is down substantially from years past.

Six-figure losses are the new normal for the Links. It is up to the council to decide if they want to continue to write these losses off, or come up with a more sustainable plan for the courses.

You can read the full audit here.

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Opinion

How to collect a fuel tax for electric vehicles

Thomas Clatterbuck

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Tax fairness and capital improvements are the hot topics in Springfield at the close of the legislative session. However, new technologies have added complications to one of the most common taxes, the motor fuel tax. This tax, levied on the sale of gas and other liquid fuels, helps pay for road repairs and improvements. In an era when every vehicle bought gas or diesel at the pump, it was easy to collect and reasonably fair for everyone who used the roads.

Electric vehicles are an exciting new technology, but they disrupt this system. Electric vehicles refuel at charging stations, and thus do not buy gas. But they still use the roads, even though they are not paying to maintain them the way other drivers do. Many people rightfully consider this unfair.

One proposal to correct this is a higher registration fee for electric vehicles. State Senator Marty Sandoval has put forward a $1,000 a year regulation fee to offset the gas tax that is no longer being collected. While many balk at the high price tag, the real issue with the $1,000 price tag is the arbitrariness of the figure. Unlike the motor fuel tax which is based on use, $1,000 is just a nice round number.

Levying a electric fuel tax

There is, however, a way to make electrical vehicles pay the normal fuel tax. The local utility in Springfield, CWLP, has a program which allows customers to pay a lower rate for charging their electric vehicles at off-peak times. The high draw these chargers need can be a problem for neighborhood transformers, and CWLP wanted to encourage customers to spread out the load. Although the logistics of such a program sound complicated, it is easily operated off of new meters installed on the Level 2 chargers for electric vehicles. Currently, the CWLP program applies to home stations, but there is no reason it couldn’t also be implemented on public and commercial charging stations as well.

If usage can be tracked so the rate is lower, usage can also be tracked to allow a tax to be levied. Since there is already a fuel tax on gas, the tax on electricity can be set to match the average number of miles equivalent vehicles would get from gas. Light vehicles average 22 miles per gallon, and currently pay a 19 cents per gallon state fuel tax. This gives a starting point for calculating what the tax should end up being on a kilowatt hour of charging. And since the power used by a Level 2 charger can be tracked separately from a customer’s total usage, the tax could be applied only to electricity that fuels an electric vehicle. This type of tracking is already being done by CWLP.

The number of electric vehicles in Illinois is still small, and the fuel taxes they are no longer paying is only a drop in the bucket for Illinois’ infrastructure needs. But they are currently enjoying a free ride in a time when everyone else is being asked to pay more. By levying a tax on the power electric vehicles use to operate, they can pay the same fuel tax as everyone else. This will only become more important as the number of electric vehicles rises. The technology exists to make collecting this tax is already in use, so it is possible to make sure all the users are paying their fair share.

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