Illinois Lawmakers Pass Budget, Ethics Reforms As Exelon Bailout Falters

Illinois State Capitol Building
The Illinois State Capitol is seen Tuesday, June 19, 2012 Springfield, Ill. Seth Perlman / Associated Press
Illinois State Capitol Building
The Illinois State Capitol is seen Tuesday, June 19, 2012 Springfield, Ill. Seth Perlman / Associated Press

Illinois Lawmakers Pass Budget, Ethics Reforms As Exelon Bailout Falters

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Aiming to conclude their spring legislative session, Illinois state lawmakers on Monday passed a $42 billion budget, delayed next year’s primary election and toughened lobbying laws after a corruption scandal forced a once-in-a-generation Democratic power shift in Springfield.

The Illinois House and Senate also voted to allow college athletes to sign endorsement deals and to fine-tune previously passed criminal justice reforms dealing with the use of force and body cameras by police, though tweaks that passed Monday were temporarily blocked.

But as the Democratic-led legislature worked past 3 a.m. Tuesday, there were some big swings and misses by lawmakers, starting with a nuclear bailout for Exelon that spent much of the day in legislative limbo as talks faltered between the utility, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker and Democratic legislative leaders.

The inaction leaves the fate of three financially-struggling nuclear plants in northern Illinois very much unclear.

And a procedural maneuver was used by Democratic Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, to put a parliamentary hold on advancing the state budget to Pritzker. But by Tuesday afternoon, that hold was dropped

Other issues that failed to take flight included the repeal of a parental notification abortion law, a fix to major delays in obtaining state firearm permits, and creation of an elected Chicago school board, which was a priority of the Chicago Teachers Union that Mayor Lori Lightfoot fought to reshape.

“Count the victories,” House Speaker Chris Welch, D-Hillside, said in talking with reporters after they had adjourned. “Don’t look at the things that didn’t get done yet.”

But whether any of those issues truly were dead remained to be seen because the Illinois Senate gaveled out shortly past 3 a.m. Tuesday with plans to reconvene in Springfield later in the morning. The House’s schedule moving forward was unclear early Tuesday.

The planned end of the spring legislative session came down to the wire without former Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, who was toppled from power in January as an ongoing federal investigation into ComEd’s bribery-tainted lobbying practices encroached on his inner circle.

Madigan’s absence marked the first time he wasn’t part of the springtime legislative ritual since 1971. Power has now shifted to Welch and to Harmon, who is in his second year as the top Senate Democrat.

Throughout the spring, there were fits and starts and, at times, confusion over who was driving Springfield’s new political machinery in the absence of the longest-tenured speaker in American history. Madigan also spent decades as chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, arguably making him the state’s most powerful politician.

But in the end, Welch and Harmon’s overall output had the same feel as the old regime when it came to Democrats setting the agenda and steamrolling Republicans, whose numbers at the statehouse are lower than at any point in more than a half century.

A new state budget that takes effect in July passed both legislative chambers on lopsided partisan roll calls.

Flush with billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money, the spending plan was devoid of any major tax increases, repaid coronavirus-related borrowing from the federal government and extended a financial lifeline to the state’s K-12 public schools and human service providers, in part, through the elimination of more than $600 million in business tax credits.

“This budget absolutely funds our priorities because we are fighting for individuals who cannot fight for themselves,” said state Sen. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, the Senate Democrats’ budget point person.

But Republicans were left powerless to block the Democratic fiscal plan and instead railed about being left out of $1 billion in spending for capital projects and, more broadly, having their legislative priorities cast aside by Democrats all spring.

“I had hope this year – hope for a new day in Springfield,” said House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs. “I just couldn’t have been more wrong based on what’s happening tonight.”

As Monday dragged on, the most dramatic feature was the fate of the Exelon bailout, which sought to extend a lease on life for the company’s financially struggling nuclear plants at Dresden, Braidwood and Byron as part of a broader green-energy push by the Pritzker administration. Exelon announced last August it would close Dresden and Byron without relief from Springfield.

Pritzker’s office and Exelon appeared to have settled on the broad framework of more than $600 million in ratepayer subsidies over five years, multiple sources confirmed to WBEZ. But a deal hit an 11th hour snag involving the future of a southern Illinois coal-burning plant.

Talks surrounding the nuclear package unfolded under the heavy cloud of an ongoing federal probe into Exelon’s subsidiary, ComEd. Last week, as part of that investigation, federal prosecutors announced perjury and obstruction of justice charges against Madigan’s one-time chief of staff, Tim Mapes.

With the Illinois Senate set to resume at 11 a.m. Tuesday, here is a look at some of what the legislature acted on Monday and that is expected to soon head Pritzker’s way.

Overhauling Illinois elections

Illinois’ gubernatorial primary would be moved back to June 28, 2022, under a massive bill making changes to the state’s elections. Typically the state holds its primary in March.

Democrats argued the later primary was intended to shorten the length of the general election for this one cycle. But it also buys them more time to draw Congressional district maps as part of the once-in-a-decade redistricting process.

Lawmakers recently approved new legislative boundaries for the General Assembly and the state Supreme Court that help cement Democrats’ hold on power. Due to delays in receiving U.S. Census data, Democrats used estimated census figures to draw the new districts, despite GOP concerns that that data isn’t accurate.

But Democrats held off on releasing new Congressional district boundaries, anticipating Republican legal challenges if they didn’t wait until the final Census data is released this fall.

“Redistricting drives everything that we do here and accounts for so much of why our state is not working,” said State Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria. “This is not a bill about moving the primary. It’s not a bill about voter empowerment. It is protection for redistricting.”

The proposal would also make permanent some of the voting changes enacted for the 2020 pandemic election, including allowing voters to request mail-in ballots for all future elections.

Voters can request primary vote-by-mail ballots starting on March 30, 2022, but requests must be submitted by June 23, 2022 under the plan.

The bill also eliminates the use of the word “alderman” from state statute and replaces it with the gender-neutral term “alderperson.” It also would allow for childcare to be an acceptable use of campaign expenses.

The measure advanced along partisan lines.

Illinois college sports bets allowed in another expansion of gambling

Just two years after vastly expanding gambling operations in the state to include the authorization of a Chicago casino, Illinois lawmakers also advanced a whole new package of gambling initiatives before adjourning Monday. The new gambling bill would legalize wagering on Illinois college sports and allow sports betting at Wintrust Arena where the Chicago Sky play.

Illinois specifically banned betting on Illinois college teams when the state first legalized sports betting two years ago.

Legislators on Monday reversed course over the objections of some universities.

Last month, Josh Whitman, the University of Illinois athletic director, asked lawmakers to consider the mental health of athletes who are subject to online ridicule.

“The commentary is vile, it’s abusive, it’s threatening, and in some cases it directly references gambling losses,” Whitman told lawmakers in April. “If you insert the possibility that someone may have lost $100 or $500 or $1,000 on a bet, that narrative is only going to intensify.”

Late night budget passage

The state budget proposal ended up being one of the least dramatic initiatives the legislature addressed on Monday as lawmakers made quick work of passing it with little discussion or time to review the massive spending plan before voting on it as Monday turned to Tuesday.

The budget calls for repaying $2 billion the state borrowed to make up for losses incurred from the pandemic.

Democrats said they were responsibly spending federal pandemic assistance money, and highlighted how they have prioritized paying down the backlog of the state’s bills, which had reached $17 billion a few years ago but now stands at $3.2 billion.

“The budget we passed last year helped our state through the most difficult and dark hours of a pandemic,” said State Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago. “Now we’re ready to move on and continue to reopen, restart and revitalize the state and continue to stabilize our fiscal condition.”

But Republicans, who voted against the budget, were critical that it doesn’t address the $5 billion deficit in the unemployment insurance trust fund, which pays jobless benefits to out-of-work Illinoisans.

There is no tax income tax increase in the budget. It was the first spending plan approved by lawmakers since voters last fall overwhelmingly rejected Pritzker’s push to change Illinois to a graduated income tax structure, where wealthier people pay higher tax rates.

But Republicans said the Democrats’ plan to halt the phase-out of the franchise tax would amount to a tax increase on businesses.

Lawmakers pass narrow ethics reforms

State lawmakers also approved an ethics reform package following a spate of public corruption scandals over the last year, including the one involving ComEd.

Illinois lawmakers and other state elected officials could no longer lobby local units of governments under a new ethics proposal. Former State Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, has pleaded not guilty to federal charges that he offered a bribe to a state senator on behalf of his lobbying client.

Lawmakers and state elected officials would also be forbidden from becoming lobbyists for six months after they leave office, though that part of the bill doesn’t go into effect until 2023.

The proposal also would require lobbyists to disclose the consultants they hire who do work for their clients. The issue arose during the ComEd lobbying scandal. The utility admitted it gave contracts to politically-connected consultants in order to curry favor with then-Speaker Madigan. Those consultants were able to fly under the radar because state law didn’t require disclosure of their work for ComEd.

Fierce debate over feminine hygiene products

In a debate that offered a hint at the possible complexion of the 2022 governor’s race, the Illinois Senate approved a House-backed bill compelling public schools to place “menstrual hygiene” products in bathrooms, including boy’s bathrooms.

The measure’s sponsor, State Sen. Karina Villa, D-West Chicago, said the legislation was aimed at helping transgender kids.

“A student, a child, needs a product in the bathroom. They should be able to go in the bathroom and get the product. That’s it,” said Villa, a 15-year school social worker. “A student’s education should not be interrupted because of a lack of access to menstrual products.”

But Republicans ridiculed the concept, including state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, a conservative firebrand who has tangled repeatedly with the governor and is running for the 2022 GOP gubernatorial nomination.

“I’m just gonna say what I guess needs to be said: I’m a man. I have three sons. I’ve got five grandsons,” Bailey said. “Men and boys don’t menstruate, and we sure as heck don’t need tampons in our bathrooms.”

Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.