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Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker at the State Capitol, Friday, May 22, 2020, in Springfield, Ill.

The State Journal-Register via AP, Pool

Pritzker Says Energy Deal Can Happen, But Coal Plant Must Close By 2035

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker endorsed a massive green energy package that stalled this week in Springfield, but said Thursday that a downstate coal plant that emerged as an 11th-hour impediment to the measure “has got to close.”

The Democratic governor expressed optimism that that sticking point involving the Prairie State Energy Campus’ future and its relationship with several Chicago suburbs it powers will be dealt with and that a legislative deal could soon emerge.

In an interview with WBEZ Thursday, Pritzker also focused on an array of legislation headed his way after the close of the General Assembly’s spring session, the prospects of an elected Chicago school board and his own future political plans as he nears the midway point of his first term as governor.

Pritzker is still pushing the unresolved energy omnibus that also includes hundreds of millions of dollars in new ratepayer subsidies for Exelon Generation to keep three of its Illinois nuclear plants in operation for at least the next five years. After a deal appeared imminent late Monday, no vote happened before legislators left Springfield this week.

“The question was, could we get a decent deal? Could we negotiate something with them and to make sure that we weren’t overpaying for what we got?” the governor said. “And you know, these things are a compromise. Nothing is perfect. But I think all of this landed in a decent place.”

As the legislative session was nearing an end after lawmakers worked through the Memorial Day weekend, Senate Democrats put the brakes on the deal due to questions surrounding Prairie State, located southeast of St. Louis.

In the energy package, coal-fired power plants like that one would have to close by 2035. Earlier plans, including what Pritzker had been pushing, had coal plants being mothballed around the state by 2030.

That original deadline was pushed back amid concerns from Naperville, Winnetka and several other Chicago suburbs over long-term borrowing they had undertaken to secure power from Prairie State. The municipalities don’t want to still be paying off debt associated with a plant that would no longer exists.

“Much of that was dealt with, as you know, in a compromise moving from 2030 to 2035 so that we could take care of some of the challenges that those municipalities have in paying off their bonds. I think this will be an ongoing conversation,” he said. “We certainly want to make sure we are protecting ratepayers in those areas.

“But look, you can’t keep coal plants open if you want to get truly to the point where we’re fighting climate change and cleaning the air,” he continued. “We have the seventh-largest polluter in Prairie State in the entire nation, seventh-largest polluter. They’ve got to close with the other power plants.”

Earlier this week, the company characterized a 2035 plant closure as rushed and said it would pose a hardship on towns across Illinois that get power from Prairie State.

“Prematurely shuttering Prairie State in 2035 would place new financial burdens on communities who own the plant by essentially forcing them to pay for two sources of power: the energy already owned through their partnerships with Prairie State Energy Campus, and replacement power to cover that loss,” said Alyssa Harre, a Prairie State spokeswoman. “That is an additional cost our not-for-profit member communities and their ratepayers cannot afford.”

It’s unclear when -- or if -- state lawmakers will return to the Capitol to finish the energy package, which was being negotiated beneath the cloud of a corruption scandal that enveloped Exelon’s subsidiary, Commonwealth Edison.

Also during Thursday’s interview, Pritzker said he is prepared to sign an ethics package after the ComEd bribery scandal that toppled ex-House Speaker Michael Madigan in January and has resulted in a series of federal indictments that have touched his inner circle.

And on another unresolved legislative issue -- a Senate-passed bill to allow for a fully-elected Chicago school board by 2027 -- the governor declined to show his cards. Pritzker wouldn’t say whether he embraces that bill that is on its way to the House or whether he’d like to see more negotiations on it, as Mayor Lori Lightfoot wants.

“The bill that has resulted is a compromise, of sorts,” Pritzker said. “It’s not one that the mayor is happy with. I don’t know what the House will ultimately do with that legislation. But like I said, I’m in favor of an elected school board.”

Finally, with the legislature mostly finished with its work until the fall, Pritzker’s own plans come front and center: He’s up for reelection in November 2022.

And while he recently has deposited $35 million of his own money into his gubernatorial campaign fund as a political show of force, the governor has not publicly said he intends to seek reelection. Then again, there’s no huge rush considering no Democrats have emerged as a potential primary threat to him and lawmakers passed an election package that would move the primary to late June 2022.

However, Pritzker told WBEZ that a political announcement involving his next political steps could be coming soon.

“Honestly I need to sit down with my family and have that conversation,” he said. “It’s not an easy decision. I’ve got two teenagers. This has been a challenging year-and-a-half. And I love the job. There’s no doubt. I love the job. But it’s a serious decision to make and so I’ll let you know, I promise, as soon as I can, and I think relatively shortly, what my decision is.”

Despite most of his term being dedicated to managing a pandemic that has killed nearly 23,000 Illinoisans, Pritzker said he is not tired of the job.

“I do like the work that I do an awful lot,” he said, “so I’m not burned out.”

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.

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