The month of May means it’s prime time for action in Springfield. The state legislature is set to wrap up its business by the end of the month. Here’s a look at what’s on the to-do list for May 31.
1. A New State Budget
Illinoisans discovered from 2015 to 2017 what it was like to go without a complete budget, and no official or resident is ready to repeat that exercise.
The pandemic has put new pressures on the state’s already beleaguered finances.
“Revenues are both down and our expenses have gone up as a result of any number of issues related to Medicaid or the need to appropriately help those struggling because of the pandemic,” Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside, said. “That, coupled with the revenue loss, is putting a little strain on the budget. We project right now that the budget committees have to close about a $1.6 billion deficit. Not great, but also not insurmountable.”
The spending plan Gov. J.B. Pritzker closed in February relied in part on doing away with a set of tax credits for businesses – or as he called them, loopholes.
But since then, Congress approved a gargantuan COVID-19 relief package that will make his and the legislature’s job a lot easier, as Illinois is set to get $7.5 billion from the federal government.
A chunk of that will go toward paying off debt the state took out early in the pandemic.
Now, lawmakers are waiting on the federal government to send word on how else they can spend the COVID-19 relief money; it’s expected there will be strings.
It’s a process that happens once a decade: The General Assembly’s charged with drawing new maps of state legislative and Congressional boundaries.
Democrats, who hold super-majorities in the legislature and the Governor’s office, want it done by the end of session, before a June deadline that diminishes their control over the process, by giving the map-making process over to a bipartisan – read, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans -- panel.
But while Democrats have it on their “must-do” agenda, Republicans say map-making doesn’t deserve a spot on the “must happen in May” list because that’d mean the state’s using faulty data -- the federal census info isn’t expected until August.
Commonwealth Edison admitted last July to a long-running bribery scheme intended to influence former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan in exchange for getting favorable legislation passed; just Wednesday ComEd’s former CEO was among the defendants with ties Madigan back in court for a status hearing on charges relating to the corruption scheme.
Each of the defendants and Madigan have denied any wrongdoing; Madigan has not been charged.
It’s against this backdrop that Gov. Pritzker in his joint budget and state of the state address promised movement on an ethics package to clean up Springfield.
Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie told WTTW-News on Wednesday that he expects an ethics bill will be approved this spring – with the swirling scandals, there’s no way the legislature can do nothing; he said it’s a question of how far it will go.
“Ethics is certainly on the top of the list for Republicans,” McConchie, R-Hawthorne Woods, said. “There’s a number of proposals that Republicans have put on the table in order to help make sure that we don’t have to wait for the feds to come in and clean up a mess after us. That we’d like to expand the powers of the Attorney General, have a statewide empowered grand jury in order to be able to help us clean up our own messes…unfortunately we have yet to hear a hearing about many of these Republican ideas.”
Illinois has a clean energy policy, but it’s riddled with issues that will prevent the state from meeting its current clean energy goals; meanwhile, ComEd’s parent company, Exelon, is again threatening to close a pair of nuclear power plants unless a law is passed that would have customers subsidize them, as Illinois did in the past to save other Exelon nuclear facilities.
Pritzker in February said this is the year to “pass an energy bill that protects our nuclear fleet and builds up our wind and solar industries.”
Late last month Pritzker’s office unveiled a comprehensive energy package.
But the field’s already crowded: Clean energy advocates are divided over a pair of other proposals, and powerful labor unions back their own version.
Negotiations are ongoing and could reach resolution by May’s end … but they have been for some time already.
5. Scores More
Last year’s COVID-19-truncated session means there’s pent-up demand for lawmakers to pass bills of import to their districts.
Hundreds of bills are percolating in the capitol, ranging on issues from property taxes to midwifery to a measure that would strip funding increases from schools that restrict students’ hairstyles.
Among these are measures that Rep. Zalewski admits would receive a lot of attention in a more traditional session, like bills affecting gambling and gun rights.
Also, it’s been more than a year after Illinois was to have awarded cannabis dispensary licenses to “social equity” applicants and due to scoring issues, lawsuits and a fumbled process … nothing.
Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago, is leading an effort to fix the laws, finally paving the way for Black and Latino cannabis entrepreneurs to gain entry to Illinois’ lucrative legal marijuana business.
Because of the pandemic, everything’s a bit complicated: Many legislative hearings are still at least partially virtual, and lobbyists who typically crowd the capitol can’t easily mingle with lawmakers.
Even as COVID-19 restrictions are beginning to lift as cases fall and vaccinations rise, Gov. Pritzker is facing criticism and calls for hearings, after a state audit found widespread mismanagement at his veteran’s affairs department and its handling of a COVID-19 outbreak this fall that killed 36 LaSalle veteran’s home residents.
“The governor needs to be a little more humble in this situation,” State Rep. David Welter, R-Morris, said. “He bears responsibility and I think he owes it to our veterans to be honest with them about what happened and not to continue to dodge and point fingers at other people.”
Pritkzer has primarily blamed his since ousted director of the state veteran’s agency, former state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, for missteps at the LaSalle facility.
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