SPRINGFIELD — Illinois lawmakers finished a two-day special session on June 17 by passing some important legislation, including an elected Chicago Board of Education, but without reaching agreement on the one issue they had hoped to resolve: an energy bill that would phase out all carbon emissions from power plants over the next 30 years.
Topping their list of accomplishments was the final, slightly amended passage of a $42.3 billion budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year, something they thought they had completed when they first adjourned June 1, but which Gov. J.B. Pritzker was forced to send back for a minor change to correct drafting errors regarding the effective date of various provisions.
“It's a balanced budget that achieves a level of fiscal prudence not seen in our state for two decades,” Pritzker said Thursday during a news conference in Chicago. “For the first time since 2001, Illinois is paying its bills on time. We are also paying off pandemic borrowing early. We're meeting our full pension obligation and we're saving taxpayers tens of millions of taxpayer dollars along the way.”
The budget provides essentially flat funding for most state government operations, with the exception of K-12 education, which will see the $350 million increase called for in the evidence-based funding formula, and some human services such as Medicaid.
The bill also calls for using about $1 billion in federal funds from the recently-passed federal American Rescue Plan Act to get an early start on infrastructure projects that are part of the Rebuild Illinois capital improvements program of 2019, something Pritzker said would create new jobs throughout the state and help accelerate the state’s economic recovery.
In addition to fixing the budget bill, lawmakers also passed legislation this week to ensure that people who, through no fault of their own, received more unemployment benefits than they were entitled to will not be required to pay back those overpayments.
They also passed legislation aimed at clearing up a backlog of applications for Firearm Owner’s Identification cards as well as legislation providing for a first-ever elected Chicago school board, an issue that had divided legislative Democrats and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
The bill creates a 21-person board starting in 2024; at first, the mayor would appoint some, and others would be elected. But in 2027, Chicagoans would elect them all. The bill also blocks all school consolidations and closures through 2025.
Chalkbeat Chicago reports that there are lingering questions over how to untangle about $500 million in municipal and Chicago Public Schools finances, campaign finance rules for the member elections and how to divide the city into 21 districts.
While Lightfoot said she will negotiate changes to the bill, Pritzker said he will sign it.
Local Reps. Curtis J. Tarver II (D-25th) and Kam Buckner (D-26th) voted for it in the special session; Sen. Robert Petes (D-13th) voted for it when it passed the upper chamber during the spring session a few weeks ago.
During floor debate, Buckner called the reform "a down payment on democracy" and "a practical, common sense bill." He referenced his own CPS education as well as the portable "Willis Wagons" school classrooms installed at overcrowded, predominantly African American schools — including Carnegie Elementary, 1414 E. 61st Place — and the closure of dozens of public schools during Rahm Emanuel's mayoralty.
"I think that would give anybody in this chamber pause if that happened in their community," Buckner said. "In this chamber, we often talk about treating Chicago differently than the rest of the state. Let me clear: District 299 is the only district in Illinois that does not have an elected school board. Today we have a chance to change that. … We've put this off and played these games for far too long."
Energy negotiations continue
The one issue that continued to elude lawmakers was the issue that ostensibly brought them back to Springfield for the two-day session to begin with, passage of an energy overhaul bill.
One of the key sticking points that remains to be resolved is how the new legislation would treat coal and natural gas-fired power plants. Pritzker has said his goal is to phase out coal plants entirely by 2035, although he recently said he is willing to extend that if existing coal plants can somehow capture and sequester their carbon emissions. He also wants to phase out natural gas-fired plants by 2045 by gradually lowering caps on allowable emissions.
As negotiations over those issues continue, however, energy giant Exelon, which operates six nuclear power plants in Illinois, has threatened to shut down at least two of them because they are currently unprofitable.
The legislative team is continuing negotiations, with predictions that lawmakers will return to Springfield once an agreement is reached.
Herald staff contributed from Chicago. Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.