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Budget Impasse Bad For Environment, Jobs

Chris Skokna loves his job. He owns “Twin Supplies:” an Oak Brook-based company that installs energy efficient lighting.

His job is supported in part by a program called Illinois Energy Now, which was designed to make green energy upgrades available to low-income entities and public sector buildings that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them. The upgrades can save the buildings,  and thus taxpayers,  money. But the state budget impasse means he’s not getting paid from that program - even though the money is there.

Skokna just finished putting new lights into a fire station in Stickney, a village just outside Chicago. The station is basically a big garage with a couple of firetrucks and an upstairs lounge for the responders to hang out in between calls. It looks good under gleaming new LED light fixture Skokna set up.

 “So if nobody is in this fire area, the lights go off. Basically what we did is we took out 12,000 watts,” said Skokna.

All told, Twin Supplies will charge the fire station about $23,000 for this job. But the station will only have to pay about $16,000.

As for the rest, Illinois Energy Now is on hold--stalled for the last ten months by the state budget impasse. And because of that Skokna is not getting rebate money from this firehouse. Instead, he’ll get an I.O.U.

“We are really, really hoping that this state budget gets settled,” Skokna says.

Lots of state services have lost funding this year because of the lack of a budget. But Illinois Energy Now has nothing to do with tax dollars. The program is funded by a small monthly charge on residential and commercial utility bills in the state.

So funding isn’t a problem. But because the way the program is written the money can’t be released without a state budget.

It’s definitely frustrating and actually more so for [Twin Supplies], because they are going to be taking a hit,” says Stickney Deputy Fire Chief Jason Staidl. “Hopefully they are going to get their money.”

Staidl says the new lights are good for his budget though. They will cut 25 percent off the firehouse’s electric bill, which is usually around $800 a month.

“We are able to use the money we would spend on our electric bill now on stuff we need for the fire department,” Staidl says. “With that savings, now we don’t have to go burden the community in extra money.”

The stalling of the funding of this program also means less jobs. Illinois Energy Now has created or sustained about 20,000 jobs across the state since it started in 2008, according to the Smart Energy Design Assistance Center.

“It’s a complete no brainer,” said SEDAC Director Brian Deal. “It’s a positive, a very positive thing. It’s a job creation machine.”

The lack of a state budget has left about $75 million of energy upgrades planned for this year stuck in limbo. Last year, Chris Skokna planned to add half a dozen salespeople. Now he is hoping not to lay anyone off.

 “The money is there. It’s sitting in a bank account,” said Brian Deal. “It doesn’t have to be generated by anyone--it's done.”

This is very frustrating for State Senator Daniel Biss. He introduced a bill that would change the law governing Illinois Energy Now so that the program would start back up, budget or no budget. It would take that $75 million that’s doing nothing in the bank, and free it up to start funding green energy projects again. Biss hopes that he can get the bill passed before the legislative session ends May 31. Still, he says he is disappointed he has to do it.

“This is a triage effort because state government is broken. We shouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place. But state government is broken, and while we try to fix it comprehensively we also have to try and pick up the pieces. And this is one of those pieces.”

Hear more from our Caught in the Middle series:


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