Peters in mask

Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th)

State Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) had another productive legislative session this spring, passing 17 bills through both houses of the General Assembly and onto Gov. J.B. Pritzker's desk.

Without much of a spring session last year, legislators came to Springfield with "a lot of initiatives," Peters said, "and were just ready to go and move pieces of legislation."

Former Senate President John Cullerton, in office 11 years, and former House Speaker Michael Madigan, in office for 36, are out, replaced by new presiding officers. After the Black Caucus' significant success in passing legislation during the lame duck session last winter, the Latino and Moderate caucuses sought to flex their power.

Peters, for his part, said the new Senate president, Don Harmon of Oak Park (D-39th), let the caucuses negotiate on pieces of legislation. Compared to the House, which Madigan infamously ruled with an iron grip, Peters said "the Senate is not normally one where there's a heavy hand on things."

"You had a compounding build-up of legislation: things that we introduced last year and new things that we introduced this year coming to a head, and in the Senate particularly it's famous that the chair of the committee plays a huge role, not necessarily the president, in what happens," he said. "There were definitely a lot of conversations about what happens with chairs and conversations about pieces of legislation."

"I think this was a great session in terms of the response to the last 14-16 months," said Peters. "We addressed the pandemic, we addressed the economic crisis. We'll count the lame duck session as part of this in terms of 2021: we did a lot to address issues around systemic and institutional racism. … If there's a place to start and build from as we come back from 2020, I think we had a particularly good session."

Many of Peters' largest accomplishments were already reported out in Springfield dispatches by news service Capitol News Illinois; the Herald aggregated coverage last week. He did, however, provide an update on the final form of a bill creating long-term goals to replace lead service lines in Illinois.

"It comes up with a schedule and notification timeline that allows for municipalities to help raise pay for lead service lines," Peters said. "I think it will be very helpful, specifically if we can get a (federal) infrastructure bill done, because at least it helps creates some guidelines that are really helpful lead service line replacements, and hopefully we get from the federal government an infrastructure package that deals with lead service lines because I think they are complementary of each other."

Although the installation of new lead service lines has been banned since the 1980s, Illinois has more than 636,000 lead service lines still in operation, according to data from the Metropolitan Planning Council. That number accounts for more than one-eighth of all lead service lines still in use in the United States, according to the Illinois Environmental Council.

Under the House Bill 3739, which Rep. Curtis J. Tarver II (D-25th) did not vote on and Rep. Kam Buckner (D-26th) supported, water utilities would be required to submit an initial plan for lead service line replacement by April 15, 2024, with a final plan due to Illinois Environmental Protection Agency by April 15, 2027.

"If we get the Biden infrastructure bill done and we have this, then they pair up really well, because then all of the sudden, municipalities will be able to access this money, and there will be rules and guidelines for making sure lead service line replacement is happening," Peters said.

Peters' chamber, at least, passed a bill for a fully elected Chicago Board of Education, and an agreement was said to have been near on an energy overhaul package. The energy deal reportedly would keep the state's fleet of nuclear power plants online while providing incentives for development of more wind and solar generation.

Pritzker campaigned in 2018 on a pledge to shift Illinois’ electric energy industry more toward renewable and zero-emission sources, and he has set a goal of achieving a 100% non-carbon power system by 2050. Achieving that goal, however, relies on keeping the state’s nuclear power fleet online, and Exelon has threatened to close two or more nuclear plants that it says are unprofitable unless it receives subsidies to make them economically viable.

But many lawmakers have been skeptical of Exelon’s claims, in large part because of the company’s connection with ComEd. Last year, ComEd entered a deferred prosecution agreement with federal authorities in which the company admitted to engaging in a years-long bribery scheme that involved awarding jobs and contracts to close associates of former Speaker Madigan in order to gain his support for legislation favorable to the company.

At issue in the talks over an energy package is the question of how much of a subsidy the nuclear plants need, how long the subsidies should last and how to phase out the state’s remaining coal- and gas-fired power plants while creating new energy-related jobs for the workers who would be displaced.

On June 8, Speaker Welch announced the House would reconvene on Wednesday, June 16, for a one-day special session on issues including the energy proposal and an elected Chicago school board.

Peters said senators, too, will return to the statehouse over the summer for a special session to deal with energy legislation.

"We've been told middle of June. I'll see," he said before Welch's announcement. "If we could get this done in one day, that'd be great."

(Peters and Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently got into an he-said-she-said altercation over the elected school board at a Chicago Sky basketball game. According to Peters, he stopped to say hello to Lightfoot, and she said, referring to the school board debate, "We’re gonna (expletive) her." Peters, on Twitter, said he then joked with her about the game, which he told the Herald they discussed. On June 5, Lightfoot disputed Peters' recollection of their exchange. "I raised the issue of the elected school board with him, but the stuff that he put in his Twitter account just fundamentally never happened," she said.)

Peters' individual legislative accomplishments reflect long-term interest in youth in care, mental health care and the criminal justice system.

HB 2784, the Community Emergency Services and Support Act, provides that all Illinois 9-1-1 centers must coordinate with mobile mental and behavioral health services established by the Division of Mental Health of the Department of Human Services to send out a mental health care professional to access and help de-escalate a situation. It is not a co-responder situation, wherein a police officer will accompany the professional, though police are allowed to be nearby.

The new service is funded with federal dollars and applies statewide, even in rural Illinois. "The main is less about if you have mental health workers. It's if you don't have the capacity, you are exempted," Peters said. But those regions are being given help to capacity-build. "It's no guarantee that it happens, but there're only three jurisdictions that are going to be exempted. Almost everybody else has the ability to do this."

Peters introduced HB 3582, an amendment to the Victims' Economic Security and Safety Act, after hearing of a mother whose child was murdered but who was not allowed to take unpaid leave from work to mourn. She and other Illinois victims and family members of victims of violent crimes are, should the bill be signed into law, protected in terms of unpaid leave, voluntary leave benefits and against discrimination.

"I think the issue is oftentimes when you're someone like me who is very progressive about reimagining about public safety is that oftentimes we get pegged for not caring about crime, and to me, that's (expletive)," Peters said.

"I want to be sure that trauma doesn't beget more trauma. I want to ensure that people who are survivors of crime, domestic violence or sexual assault are getting the protections and the love that they need, and I don't think that we need to wield the hammer that is law enforcement for every one of these incidents. I think that people need to grieve, get the health care that they need and the space, and for me and the state, we need to do our best to provide that to people."

Of concern to Chicago is Senate Bill 652, which limits requirements for a Local School Council quorum in Chicago Public Schools. Peters said the bill will make LSCs more equitable by reducing the council’s size. "What we know is that Black and Latinx schools are the places where you have the hardest time being able to fill quorum," he said. "CPS ended up coming around and supporting it, and I think it will be very helpful, particularly for South Side schools."

Into the BIMP, or budget implementation bill, Peters folded funding for an Office for Firearm Violence Prevention that "will move hundreds of millions of dollars to violence-interruption, trauma-support services and to areas of care around housing and health care."

Peters other passed bills include:

  • SB 63, which requires youth in care to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
  • SB 64, which makes privileged most anything said or done in the course of restorative justice practice
  • SB 651, which expedites transfer of documentation of youth in care
  • SB 2116, which mandates 270 minutes of civics instruction, including voting rights, for people in Department of Juvenile Justice custody.
  • HB 3235, which mandates that people 45 from being discharged from Department of Corrections custody get information about getting state identification, registered to vote, job listings, housing information, a directory of their elected officials and other information as deemed necessary "in order for the committed person to reenter the community and avoid recidivism," like health care coverage.

Capitol News Illinois reporters Peter Hancock and Tim Kirsininkas contributed from Springfield. CNI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation

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