Illinois Lawmakers Return to Springfield for Veto Session. From Tax Breaks to Nuclear Power Plants, Here’s What’s on the Agenda

Illinois State Capitol. (WTTW News)Illinois State Capitol. (WTTW News)

Members of the Illinois legislature will reunite on Tuesday to take care of any unfinished business before the year’s end, including deciding the ultimate fate of measures rejected in whole or in part by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

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What happens over the course of the annual veto session will determine whether Illinois continues to offer voucher-like scholarships to low-income students who want to attend private school; whether the state will allow new nuclear power plants; whether domestic violence victims will receive more legal protections; and whether local nursing homes will receive a break on their property tax bills.

The General Assembly is scheduled to convene for a total of six days for the veto session — three days this week followed by a week’s break, then another three days beginning Nov. 7.

Explaining the Veto Process

Vetoes from Pritzker are rare, given that he’s a deep-pocketed Democrat and both the state House and Senate are also in Democratic control.

Illinois’ chief executive has the ability to veto, or reject, legislation completely or to change it with an amendatory veto. With budget bills, he can outright cut line items or reduce dollar amounts.

Three-fifths (or a supermajority) of the members of each chamber (that amounts to 71 in the House and 36 in the Senate) are needed to override the governor’s will.

It also only requires a regular majority to accept gubernatorial suggested changes (60 in the House and 30 in the Senate), known as amendatory vetoes.

Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers, giving members of the governor’s own party enough to override a veto should they vote on party lines.

Pritzker wields power within the Democratic party, but few of the issues before the General Assembly this time around are strictly partisan in nature.

Pritzker took his veto pen to a handful of measures approved before the spring session adjourned. 

Lift the Nuclear Moratorium | SB76

With its 11 nuclear reactors at six nuclear power plants, “Illinois generates more electricity from nuclear energy than any other state, accounting for one-eighth of the nation’s total nuclear power generation,” according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

That’s even with a ban effective since 1987 that forbids new nuclear power plants be built here.

Illinois legislators voted to lift the ban and open the door to so-called advanced nuclear reactors.

Advocates say nuclear power is a greenhouse gas emission-free option that would provide a smart energy alternative as Illinois law is moving coal-fired plants offline. Many environmentalists and other critics want Illinois to focus on wind and solar options as the state looks to meet a legal goal of 100% renewable energy come 2050.

Pritzker isn’t outright opposed to more nuclear energy, writing in his veto message that “there appears to be real potential for Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), which could, in the future, safely provide power for large energy consuming businesses in areas where their energy needs cannot currently be met.”

But Pritzker said the legislation sent to him doesn’t provide ample health and safety protections for residents who may live near new nuclear reactor campuses.

He also said an “overly broad” definition of the types of reactors would “open the door to proliferation of large scale nuclear reactors that are so costly to build that they will cause exorbitant ratepayer-funded bailouts,” which already have Illinois consumers on the hook.

“My hope is that future legislation in Illinois regarding SMRs would address this regulation gap, and that Illinois will adopt standards that will have been reviewed by experts in the field along with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission or another similar review panel.”

While a veto override is possible, the measure’s sponsor, state Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris) also introduced a new piece of legislation (SB2591) to address Pritzker’s concerns.

Property Tax Tug of War | HB2507

Under HB2507, veterans, surviving spouses of fallen police officers and rescue workers would receive property tax relief through homestead exemptions.

The governor is on board with that.

His issue is with the second to last paragraph of the 148-page measure, which would reduce the property tax burden for many Cook County nursing homes and mental health facilities.

Whenever one entity or class of people or business sees property tax responsibility reduced, it falls on the rest of the tax base (read: other homeowners and businesses) to make up the difference.

Nursing homes fought for the change, arguing it’s needed relief given that the industry is in stress.

The Illinois Municipal League is fighting the provision and has Pritzker on its side.

The break for nursing home operators, the governor wrote, “passes that cost on to Suburban Cook County homeowners and small businesses, with the greatest impact felt in the South Suburbs. That change will have the effect of raising property taxes on homeowners who are already overburdened and risks driving some residents into foreclosure while simultaneously threatening local school funding.”

Pritzker wants to erase the nursing home provision and leave the rest of the property tax changes intact.

Right of First Refusal | HB3445

Northern Illinois’ power supplier, ComEd, has had more political juice at the statehouse than its downstate counterpart, Ameren.

Not this time. Within part of a broader energy bill, Ameren would receive what’s known as the “right of first refusal,” or what could be considered first dibs, on new transmission line projects.

Backers, including unions, say it’s a prudent way to safeguard jobs for union members.

Critics view it as a giveaway to a politically connected utility and have Pritzker on their side because he said it will lead to higher costs for consumers.

That language, Pritzker wrote, “will eliminate competition and raise costs for rate payers by giving incumbent utility providers in the MISO (Midcontinent Independent System Operator) region a monopoly over new transmission lines. Raising costs for rate payers is particularly concerning in the MISO region, where there is currently over $3.6 billion in planned transmission construction in the Ameren service territory.  Without competition, Ameren ratepayers in downstate Illinois will see higher electricity bills to pay for the higher cost of these transmission projects.”

Religious Food Options in Schools | HB3643 

In service of helping religious-minded students, lawmakers narrowly passed a bill that would move Illinois schools to offer halal and kosher lunch choices. While school districts would have obligations, the initial work would fall on the Illinois State Board of Education, which would be tasked with entering into a “statewide master contract” that would provide religious dietary food options.

That’s Pritzker’s beef.

Pritzker wrote in his veto message that he rejected the measure because ISBE can’t execute a statewide contract — that’s a responsibility of local school districts.

“Local school districts, not the Illinois State Board of Education, have the expertise and understanding of local needs required to enter into food service contracts based on federal USDA nutrition guidelines,” the governor wrote. “The bill would restrict the capability that local school districts have to contract meal vendors based on their students’ unique local and cultural needs.”

Sixty-three state representatives voted for the bill originally, fewer than would be needed to override Pritzker.

Public-Private Partnership Problems | HB2878

Illinois’ procurement code — rules for how state and governmental entities can make purchases — got a revision with a proposal passed this spring.

That included a change that would give municipalities leeway to enter public-private partnerships (P3s) without, Pritzker said, “proper oversight.”

“The bill creates a pathway for private industry to enter P3 agreements locally that skirts transparency and anti-corruption requirements established in state statute, including ethics, BEP, campaign finance, and procurement laws. The potential in this bill for opacity and corruption is too great,” Pritzker’s veto message reads. “In addition, the bill as written puts the state at greater risk of project failure because it decreases competition and reduces the opportunity for public input into project planning and implementation currently required for other P3 developments under state law.”

Other Business

Lawmakers must deal with any vetoed bills during their window of activity in the Capitol.

But they’re not limited to vetoed bills.

The General Assembly could also use the opportunity to take up any other issue or bill.

Among topics that could come up are: a plan that would allow legislative employees to unionize; standardizing how law enforcement should remove a gun from someone a judge has determined shouldn’t have firearms while under an order of protection; and deciding the future of the Invest in Kids program.

That program gives a state tax credit to individuals who contribute money to scholarship funds that help low-income students attend private school.

Teachers’ unions are steadfastly opposed because they say any diversion of money from state coffers — particularly to support a parochial school — harms public education.

But a coalition backed by religious leaders and private school parents wants to continue Invest in Kids, and raises the specter of children on scholarships being forced to leave their chosen private schools because they can’t afford tuition without the grant.

Authorization for Invest in Kids runs out at the end of the calendar year, making the veto session the prime opportunity to save it, or let it expire.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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