Illinois’ House Speaker Emanuel ‘Chris’ Welch on Energy Bill and More

Video: Illinois’ House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch joins “Chicago Tonight” to talk about the new energy law and more. (Produced by Blair Paddock)

Illinois’ revised legislative maps are the subject of ire from government transparency groups and organizations like the Latino Policy Forum, and they’re the subject of federal lawsuits brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) as well as Illinois Republicans.

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But Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch said he’s confident the maps will withstand scrutiny.

“We believe we got it right,” Welch said. “And we do believe that the maps will be upheld. We believe that these maps truly do reflect the great diversity of Illinois.”

The lawsuits were initiated based on a law signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in June but remain in the courts as Pritzker has yet to take action on a new set of maps his fellow Democrats approved in early September.

The General Assembly redrew the maps of new Illinois House and Senate districts after receiving data from the U.S. Census bureau that showed population shifts not reflected in the original version.

Welch said the maps were passed after “extensive” hearings and that legislators received “significant input.”

However, many of the advocates who testified at those hearings were frustrated with the result, and complain that there were no public hearings after the final version of the maps was unveiled, just hours before the legislature’s passage.

Meanwhile, the federal government caught wind of Illinois’ ambitious new energy law and its goal of moving within the next several decades to an energy sector powered by wind and solar energy rather than fossil fuels.

In an interview with WTTW News, Welch said he received a congratulatory call Thursday from U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm for Illinois’ passage of the “historic” legislation that aims for the state to be carbon-free by 2045 and completely clean by 2050.

Welch defended the measure’s inclusion of a $700 million subsidy for Exelon which will be used to keep open a trio of nuclear plants in Braidwood, Byron and Dresden the Chicago-based corporation said it would otherwise close.

“We know that a path to clean energy, to a carbon-free Illinois has to include nuclear energy,” Welch said. “We should be proud of this.”

Exelon is the parent company of Commonwealth Edison, which last July signed a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, admitting to a long-running bribery scheme targeted at Welch’s predecessor, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, as a means of passing previous energy laws that helped Exelon and ComEd. 

Madigan has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing or even any knowledge of the purported scheme.

Welch called the $700 million a “reasonable number,” noting that Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office commissioned a study which found a couple of Exelon’s nuclear plants were experiencing financial losses.

The Citizen’s Utility Board estimates that the Exelon surcharge and other fees in the new law — which will be used to support job training, communities impacted by emissions and renewable energy supports — will cost the average residential customer $3.51 a month. AARP Illinois’ analysis estimates the long-term additional cost will be $15 a month, due to the law’s changes in how electric distribution rates are determined.

Whatever the amount, it will be paid for by electricity customers throughout northern Illinois.

The Speaker said Granholm did not specify on their call whether federal support for nuclear plants will be forthcoming; President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion budget package sets ambitious federal goals to combat climate change through the energy sector, including support for nuclear power.

As the Chicago Bears get ready for their first home game of the season Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, Welch said he’s a Bears fan.

He’s not, however, prepared to say whether Illinois taxpayers should pony up to entice the Bears to continue to play at Soldier Field, or to otherwise pay to keep the team in the Chicago area.

“I think it’s a little premature right now. I certainly think we have some more pressing things to consider right now other than the Bears possibly moving to Arlington Heights,” Welch said. “I’m hoping that they stay here in Illinois because I’m a Bears fan.”

Chief on Welch’s to-do list: Drawing and passing another new map, one that determines the boundaries for Illinois’ congressional districts.

Due to population gains elsewhere, Illinois is losing one of its 18 Congressional seats.

Some Republican members of Illinois’ current delegation are waiting to see what their potential new districts look like before determining whether they’ll run again or vie for the Republican Party nomination for governor.

The General Assembly is scheduled to return to Springfield for its fall veto session Oct. 19; with no real vetoes to act on, Welch said passing a Congressional map is the top order of business.

Welch is open to considering a monetary incentive for holdouts who’ve yet to be vaccinated for the coronavirus.

In July, President Joe Biden publicly called on states to offer $100 to those who get the shot; Wisconsin is currently offering a $100 reward, with a program that ends Sunday.  

“We should try anything that’ll work,” Welch said.

Illinois passed a law that allowed bars to give a shot-for-a-shot, meaning a free beer or drink for anyone who showed proof of vaccination, and anyone who was vaccinated was automatically entered into a lottery for a cash prize.

Welch said he supports Pritzker’s executive orders that mandate vaccination for state employees who work in congregate settings.

Health care workers, teachers and higher education employees also must be vaccinated or submit to regular testing, of at least once a week at schools and health care facilities. Workers in those mandated groups must have received a first dose by Sunday, Sept. 19, a delay from the original deadline.

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