What To Watch For As Illinois Lawmakers Head Into The Final Week Of Session

Chicago school board meeting attendees
A crowd at the Chicago Board of Education meeting in this file photo from June 26, 2019. Bills that would allow for members of the board to be elected are working their way through the Illinois legislature in 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago school board meeting attendees
A crowd at the Chicago Board of Education meeting in this file photo from June 26, 2019. Bills that would allow for members of the board to be elected are working their way through the Illinois legislature in 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

What To Watch For As Illinois Lawmakers Head Into The Final Week Of Session

With one week to go before Illinois lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn, several high-profile initiatives hang in the balance, from clean energy initiatives to an elected school board for Chicago to an ethics overhaul in the wake of a sprawling corruption probe.

It’s already been a historic legislative session given that it’s the first without Michael Madigan as a member of the General Assembly in five decades. The longtime Democratic House Speaker resigned after enough members of his own party refused to support him for another term holding the Speaker’s gavel given his proximity to a corruption scandal involving the power company Commonwealth Edison.

Madigan faces no criminal charges and denies wrongdoing, though ComEd has admitted it for years gave jobs and contracts to Madigan associates in exchange for favorable legislation.

As the federal corruption investigation continues, the shadow of it looms over many of the legislature’s major remaining issues.

Here’s a look at what’s in store for the marathon week ahead before the scheduled May 31 adjournment:

Clean energy

Environmental activists have been lobbying the state for years for a major new clean jobs initiative. The issue has come to a head this session because of the ComEd bribery scandal and allegations against the company’s top lobbyists and chief executive, all of whom have pleaded not guilty.

Labor unions, clean energy activists and Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker have all put forward their own plans, which continue to be negotiated. Among the largest issues still to be worked out include increased ratepayer subsidies to allow two nuclear power plants owned by Exelon Generation to avert planned shutdowns. And in a bid to get 1 million electric vehicles on Illinois roads by 2030, Pritzker wants the state to offer $4,000 rebates to anyone who buys one of the energy-efficient vehicles.

There is also the issue of increasing ethical standards on public utilities in response to the corruption scandal. Pritzker is calling for an annual audit of ComEd parent company Exelon, expanding annual disclosures for elected officials and lobbyists to include whether they have a family member employed at a utility and a sunset of ComEd’s formula rate structure, which essentially guaranteed the company profits each year.

Elected school board for Chicago

The potential for Chicagoans to elect the board overseeing the city’s public school system has been tossed about for years. Previous mayors have wanted to keep their ability to appoint members to the board themselves, much to the chagrin of the teachers union which has consistently prioritized the issue.

Negotiations continue this session, with one idea seemingly gaining traction: a hybrid school board in which the mayor would get to appoint some members of the board and others being elected by the public. That board would serve as a gateway to a fully elected school board down the road.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has had a contentious relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union, campaigned for office in support of moving to an elected school board. But, she has recently said instead that such a move would open the door to special interest groups spending big money to get seats.

Nevertheless, lawmakers this year have shown a willingness to approve legislation over the mayor’s objection, making the elected school board issue one to watch in the final days of session.

New legislative district boundaries

After every census, the state uses that data to re-draw new boundaries for legislative districts. Who draws those boundaries, however, has been the subject of much consternation for good government groups and the party in the minority. In the case of Illinois politics, that would be Republicans.

Democrats, who enjoy the governor’s seat and a supermajority of legislators in the House and Senate, released their proposed boundaries for the legislature late last week. While they face criticism for drawing districts that look like dumbbells or spaghetti noodles, Democrats argue the seats are drawn to reflect the diversity of certain neighborhoods — making sure that minority communities get their needed representation in Springfield.

Republicans, however, are considering a lawsuit if these maps are approved and signed by Pritzker. The GOP has been boxed out of the process and its members have called on Democrats to release the data they used to draw their proposed maps. In one dramatic instance, the Democrats’ map moves the homes of four incumbent downstate Republican House members into one legislative district.

State budget

In Pritzker’s budget proposal, he optimistically did not call for higher income taxes this year. That announcement came after the Democratic governor suffered an embarrassing defeat in November’s election when voters soundly rejected his call to amend the state constitution to allow for taxing wealthy people at a higher percentage than others.

Since then, Pritzker has shared promising news of the state’s economic rebound in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and record high unemployment. He recently announced a plan to repay $2 billion to the federal government that it borrowed during the pandemic.

The state has also drastically reduced the amount of money owed to its vendors, paying down the backlog of bills from $16.7 billion in 2017 to $3.5 billion, according to Comptroller Susana Mendoza.

One of the biggest fights of the upcoming budget appears to be whether Pritzker follows through on this threat to close “corporate loopholes,” programs Republicans say are economic incentives to help spur economic growth in the state.

WBEZ education reporter Sarah Karp contributed.

Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @tonyjarnold.