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Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Job insecurity for Ohio’s teachers. Entering the school year, Cleveland Metropolitan Schools officials thought they had a $23 million surplus. But that was before the district accounted for the loss of 2,000 students from seven closed schools. Our partner station Ideastream reports that means a decrease in state funding and an increase in unpredictability for the district’s teachers, some of whom have faced layoffs multiple times in the past six months.

2. Illinois manufacturers are upbeat. Manufacturers in Illinois are more optimistic about the state of their industry than counterparts nationwide, according to a survey released Monday. Crain’s Chicago Business reports that 52 percent of Illinois companies polled were thriving or growing compared to 44 percent nationwide.  Sixty-four percent in Illinois said they planned to add to their workforce in the coming year, but 60 percent also fear a weak economy will slow their business.

3. One company’s trash, another’s treasure? Two Cleveland-based firms are using green technology to improve the efficiency of garbage trucks, and hopefully their profits. The Wall Street Journal reports today that Eaton Corp. and Parker Hannifin Corp. have designed rival hydraulic systems that could save on fuel, reduce pollution and brake wear. The technologies can be applied to other vehicles. The Journal also reports the two firms have engaged in some, ahem, trash talking, about their rival’s product.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Labor report: No new jobs. Friday’s monthly report from the U.S. Labor Department showed that the nation’s unemployment rate remained unchanged at 9.1 percent in August. Financial markets feared the report signaled a weakened recovery, and edged lower on the news. Approximately 14 million people were unemployed last month, and nearly 43 percent of them have been without work for six months or longer.

2. Americans narrowly support unions. Fifty-two percent of Americans approve of labor unions, according to a new Gallup poll reported by The New York Times. The rate was unchanged from a previous poll in 2010 and up four percentage points from 2009. The poll showed a sharp divide in how Republicans and Democrats viewed unions. In the poll of 1,008 adults, 78 percent of Democrats approved of unions while 26 percent of Republicans did, the lowest percentage ever for Republicans in an annual poll taken ever year since 1936.

3. Ohio politicians reach agreement. Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State and Cuyahoga County’s Democratic executive have reached a compromise on how the state will handle absentee ballots in two upcoming elections, according to The Columbus Dispatch. Secretary of State Jon Husted will mail applications to all 88 counties for next year’s presidential election, in exchange for Ed FitzGerald’s agreement to not mail them this year. “Through a productive exchange of ideas, we were able to develop a plan and achieve consensus to preserve the uniform standards I have sought statewide,” Husted said in a statement.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Illinois casino bill teeters. As Chicago alderman and Mayor Rahm Emanuel continued lobbying for a gambling expansion bill, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has intensified his criticism of it, according to our partner station WBEZ. The governor said he has reservations about slot machines at horse tracks around the state. Lawmakers have not yet sent a gambling bill, which paves the way for a Chicago casino, to the governor yet for fear he would veto it.

2. Prison plans scaled down. Ohio will sell the Lake Erie Correctional Institution to a private corporation for $72.7 million, but officials have backpedaled from initial plans to sell four other facilities. The Columbus Dispatch reported the development Thursday. Ohio administrators released a statement  that said “it was not in Ohio taxpayers’ best interest” to pursue further sales. As Ohio readies to make one sale, The St. Petersburg Times carries a cautionary tale today about the shift toward private prisons.

3. General Motors sales rise. U.S. sales of General Motors autos increased 18 percent in August, the Detroit Free Press reported Thursday. GMC led the gain with sales climbing 40.3 percent year-over-year. The Chevrolet Cruze sold more than 20,000 cars for the fifth straight month, and was GM’s best-selling car for the third consecutive month. GM has gained market share in 7 of the past 8 months, the company’s vice president of U.S. sales operations told the Free Press.

 


Flickr user Wigwam Jones

A coal power plant in West Virginia.

The Midwest relies so heavily on one source of power that some call us the “coal belt.” It’s cheap and plentiful. But that’s about to change. A wave of government regulations is about to hit the electric industry. It has a name for all the new rules coming down the track:

“The train wreck.”

 


So says Ed Malley, a Vice President at industry consulting firm, TRC Corporation. That train wreck is the list of environmental regulations expected to be in place within the next few years. Electric utilities say this will mean the shutting of power plants, leading to higher prices and less peak capacity for hot summer days. Environmentalists say: about time.

“Utilities spent 20 years fighting the implementation of the clean air act,” says Sandy Buchanan of Ohio Citizen Action. “We now have some court decisions and rules that say yes, you really do have to clean up your coal plants, and they put deadlines on them.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has as many as nine new or revised rules affecting coal plants. They’re at various stages of approval. Some regulate nitrogen and sulfur dioxide—the causes of acid rain and health problems. Carbon dioxide rules are coming. Others will regulate the waste from coal plants and the condition of the water released into rivers and lakes.

The industry’s big objection here is the timeline, with these rules expected to be in place within just a few years. To prepare, some Midwest utilities have already announced coal plant shut downs, and many more are expected.

Hear how scrubbers are corroding on coal plants at an alarming rate, causing another wrinkle in utilities’ efforts to meet EPA rules. 

“ We’re currently evaluating everything that’s coming from the EPA and making decisions as we speak,” says Bill Sigmon of American Electric Power, a big utility based in Columbus and known to most as AEP.

Already, AEP has announced that it will retire six coal plants in Ohio, which would cut 277 jobs and hit the state’s tax base. Duke Energy is closing a power plant near Cincinnati in 2015. DTE in Michigan says it could close as many as 10 coal burners because of the EPA rules.

The recession has reduced demand for electricity, but some worry that if industry picks up, fewer power plants could mean a strained grid.

Some utilities are looking to alternatives. Besides putting expensive pollution controls on some coal plants, natural gas-fired power plants have emerged as the new favorite. Ed Malley of TRC says the cost of cleaner-burning natural gas is not that different than coal now.

“ Natural gas at this point is plentiful and inexpensive,” he says. “The price of fuels goes up and down, but in the last ten years the price of coal has increased and the price of gas has decreased, pretty dramatically.”

AEP, for one, is hedging its bets in Ohio, building both a new natural gas plant and a new, cleaner coal plant.

“I think coal is a part of the mix going forward as well,” AEP’s Sigmon says. “I think it’s going to take a combination of renewables, natural gas for sure, and keeping some of these coal plants in operation as well.”

And, as utilities decide to clean up coal or build something new, “every penny of that is going to be passed along to consumers in one form or another,” Sandy Buchanan says.

While the industry says these new EPA regulations are going to cost billions of dollars and put our power grid at risk, others say many of these dirty, old coal plants were reaching retirement age anyway, and the benefits to our health are worth far more than the costs of taking plants offline. For a region sometimes known as the “coal belt,” it might be time for a new name.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Factory orders rise. Demand for automobiles and motor vehicle parts surged in July. The U.S. Commerce Department said Wednesday orders rose 9.8 percent in July, the biggest recorded jump in more than eight years. Overall, factory orders climbed 2.4 percent in July on auto demand and a jump in commercial airplane orders. The increase follows a 0.4 percent decrease in June, which had worsened fears the country was falling into a double-dip recession.

2. Chicago school considers conversion. One local school in the Chicago Public Schools district is mulling an unusual strategy in improving its performance – it’s considering the possibility of shutting itself down. On Tuesday, the school council at Wendell Smith Elementary, seven times on probation, will likely vote on whether to shut down and reopen as a charter school, according to our partner station WBEZ. It’s believed to be the first time a CPS school has held a vote on whether to shut itself down.

3. JobsOhio heads to court. A lawsuit in Ohio is challenging whether Gov. John Kasich’s privatized development corporation is eligible for exemptions from corporate regulations. Two Democrats and a liberal policy group filed the suit Tuesday, also arguing the state cannot invest “public dollars in a private entity,” according to The Columbus Dispatch. Earlier, the Ohio Supreme Court said it did not have jurisdiction in the case until it had been heard in lower courts. Tuesday’s lawsuit was filed in Franklin County Common Court.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Angry residents confront Emanuel. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel sought solutions for the city’s budget woes during a public meeting Monday night. He got more than he bargained for, according to reports from our partner station WBEZ. A question from a laid-off traffic employee led to an extended back-and-forth with union members in the audience. “I’m responsible to the city taxpayers and the city residents,” Emanuel said, referring to a projected $635 million budget deficit. Audience members yelled that they were taxpayers too.

2. Honda renovates Ohio plants. Honda announced Monday it would spend $355 million to refurbish four plants in Ohio, according to The Columbus Dispatch. The improvements come as the automaker returns to full production following the Japanese catastrophes. The Dispatch reports some jobs will be added, but specifics are not yet available. Honda has more than 13,000 employees in the Buckeye State.

3. Lawmakers seek tax-credit extension. Tax credits for advanced battery manufacturers in Michigan are scheduled to be phased out by Gov. Rick Snyder, but Democrats in the state Legislature want to extend the incentives packages. The Associated Press reported Monday that the Democratic proposal would include tax credits for battery production and facility construction, as well as credits for buying electric vehicles and charging stations.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Manufacturing index rises. Economic conditions across the Midwest improved in July, according to a report issued Monday by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. The Fed’s manufacturing index rose 0.5 percent in the month to a seasonally adjusted level of 84.8. Overall, regional output rose 6.2 percent year-over-year. The auto industry, buoyed by continued recovery from the Japanese catastrophes, showed growth of 1.4 percent following a 0.6 percent decrease in June.

2. Survey analyzes Michigan unions. Fifty-six percent of Michigan’s local government leaders say that unions have had a negative impact on their municipalities’ fiscal health. Meanwhile, 60 percent of respondents said their jurisdiction had either “good” or “excellent” relationships with union officials in the past 12 months. The findings come from a survey conducted by the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan, which received responses from 360 of approximately 520 local governments, according to our partner station Michigan Radio.

3. Ohio ponders turnpike lease. Gov. John Kasich and his administration are still exploring the possibility of privatizing the Ohio Turnpike in a deal that could net the Buckeye State approximately $2.5 billion dollars, according to our partner station Ideastream.  The prospect of a deal comes at a time when the Ohio Department of Transportation projects a $1.5 billion deficit between now and 2017.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Michigan approves health-care changes. The Michigan state Legislature approved a proposal Wednesday that requires local municipalities, school districts and counties to pay no more than 80 percent of their employees’ health-care costs or limit payments to no more than $15,000 per family. The vote was 25-13 in favor, largely along party lines. Proponents of the legislation say it gives local governments the means to trim benefit spending. Critics say the bill is an attack on middle-class families and public employees.

2. Courts won’t stop carp. On Wednesday, a federal appeals panel denied a request from five Great Lakes states to close shipping locks in the Chicago area. The states had asked for court intervention to prevent Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes, but the court panel ruled the invasive species did not appear to be an imminent threat, according to the Chicago Tribune. Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had asked the courts to close locks at the Cal-Sag Channel and Chicago River.

3. JobsOhio announces partner. A jobs-creation group in Cincinnati has won a $4 million grant to help facilitate job growth at existing companies in the region. The Cincinnati USA Partnership announced Thursday a “grow your own” strategy that is supported by Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s JobsOhio plan, according to Cincinnati.com. Ohio’s unemployment rate inched upward to 9.0 percent in July, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Cincinnati USA Partnership is one of six organizations that will officially be supported by JobsOhio.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Chrysler invests in Toledo. Ohio Gov. John Kasich emerged from meetings with Big Three officials with a promise from Chrysler to invest $72 million in a Toledo-area machine plant that retains 640 jobs. That may just be the beginning. The auto companies see Ohio as fertile ground for future investments. “We’re very encouraged by the changes we see happening in Ohio,” GM executive director Bryan Roosa tells the Columbus Dispatch. “The attitude toward manufacturers is very supportive.”

2. Toyota unveils 2012 Camry. After two years of setbacks associated with a widespread recall and Japanese catastrophe, Toyota is banking on its 2012 Camry to reestablish itself as an industry leader. Unveiled Tuesday, the ’12 is its first redesign in five years and attempts to match competitors in styling. “It’s critical they get this right,” Michael Robinet, VP of global vehicle forecasts at HIS Automotive tells AOL Autos. “They are facing a deluge of competitors that are really getting it right.”

3. Indiana snags Illinois company. Modern Drop Forge, a manufacturer of vehicle parts, said Tuesday it will move operations from Illinois to Merrillville, Ind. The company, which employs 700 in four states, received incentives worth as much as $2.2 million from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. Business owner Greg Heim told partner station WBEZ the cost of doing business in Illinois had crept too high, with the state raising its corporate income tax from 4.7 to 7 percent until 2015.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Milwaukee’s employee-benefit conundrum. Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett and the city’s Common Council are unsure whether the city is exempt from a new state law that requires public employees contribute more toward benefit costs. The city’s attorney says Milwaukee should not comply. The governor’s chief counsel says yes. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports the disagreement centers around the state constitution’s home-rule provisions and terms of a decade-old legal settlement. Following the new law could save the city $8.2 million annually, but risks a lawsuit.

2. Chicago schools’ financial trouble. An 82-page analysis of Chicago Public Schools’ 2012 budget says that a “fiscal calamity” lies in the district’s near future if cuts are not implemented, according to the Civic Federation, which released the report Monday. The organization endorsed decisions like denying teachers a 4 percent cost-of-living increase and raising property taxes, according to our partner station WBEZ. The Federation said those decisions will look small if other remedies are not implemented to the $5.9 billion annual budget by 2014.

3. Urban garden potential. Two Ohio State researchers say as much as $115 million in produce could be grown on vacant land in Cleveland, enough to meet 22 to 100 percent of the city’s fresh food demands. “We were definitely shocked it was really possible to be self-reliant,” Parwinder S. Grewal, co-author of the study, told the Columbus Dispatch. Cleveland holds 5.3 square miles of vacant lots, and the city has recently loosened regulations to make urban gardening more palatable.