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Illinois lawmakers head toward final day of spring session still facing issues including budget, ethics and energy policy

Illinois lawmakers head toward final day of spring session still facing issues including budget, ethics and energy policy

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Springfield, Ill.

A view looking up into the dome of the “new” Illinois State Capitol building, which was completed in 1888. From the first floor to the dome is 361 feet.  

CHICAGO — Illinois lawmakers have ensured a hectic windup to the end of their spring session Monday, facing an agenda of high-profile issues that includes putting together a new state budget, toughened ethics rules and the future for the state’s energy policy.

The Legislature’s Democratic majority also was looking at moving the March 15, 2022, primary back to June to allow for new congressional boundaries to be redrawn using delayed census data — something that didn’t stop it from adopting new boundaries for the General Assembly for the next decade.

While most of the real legislative action was happening in closed-door negotiating sessions Sunday, there were some notable floor votes in the chambers. The Senate sent to Gov. J.B. Pritzker a measure extending for three years a law that expires Wednesday allowing restaurants to serve cocktails to go, first implemented as a way to help restaurant owners who struggled under pandemic customer limitations.

The bill also gives bars and restaurants a one-month period starting next month to serve a free alcoholic beverage to customers who have been vaccinated for COVID-19 as a way to motivate more people to get a shot.

The General Assembly typically goes down to the wire on big issues in the spring, and this year is no different. House lawmakers wrapped up their day shortly after 6 p.m., while the Senate continued working into the evening.

State Rep. Marcus Evans, an assistant Democratic leader from Chicago, said there’s still plenty of time left for lawmakers to address those items that still loom before they’re scheduled to adjourn Monday.

“Having a supermajority in the Legislature is very helpful and having a good governor that’s reasonable is very helpful,” Evans said. “I think we’ve got all the components to get work done.”

Legislators spent much of Sunday on largely noncontroversial measures. Bills that would restrict schools from using locked seclusion and prone restraint on students, require municipalities with 911 and ambulance services for physical emergencies to provide similar services for dealing with mental health crises, and create a new program to allow the distribution of unused prescriptions to low-income patients all received final passage and were forwarded to Pritzker.

Behind the scenes, lawmakers worked on a spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1 totaling about $42 billion. There were ongoing efforts to fill a projected deficit that has shrunk from $1.3 billion into the hundreds of millions of dollars, in part due to increased revenues beyond what had been anticipated from a pandemic recovery.

The new revenues allowed Pritzker to fulfill a $350 million increase in school funding mandated by a new school-funding formula adopted in 2017 that went unfunded this year.

In unveiling his proposed budget in February, Pritzker sought $932 million worth of business tax changes — which he said amounted to closing “corporate loopholes” — to fill the deficit. They included repealing a business tax incentive for creating construction jobs that was approved in a deal with Republican lawmakers two years ago to get their support for a budget and infrastructure plan.

But Pritzker’s tax changes have received some pushback from Democrats as well as Republicans, likely meaning a scaled-back proposal to deal with the declining deficit projection.

Also being negotiated is how to spend $8.1 billion in federal pandemic assistance. Rules prevent the money from being used for debt, including the state’s massive public pension liability. The focus has been to look at one-time uses for the money to avoid baking it into ongoing budget items that would require future state spending.

Still to be decided is the fate of ethics legislation, spawned in part by ongoing federal corruption investigations and Commonwealth Edison’s admission that it sought to win the favor of embattled former House Speaker Michael Madigan by allegedly offering bribes, contracts and jobs to his aides.

Madigan has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing, but his closest confidant is among four people charged in the scheme, and his former chief of staff was indicted last week on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Among the ethics changes under consideration are tougher revolving-door rules involving the amount of time between someone leaving government and going to work lobbying government. There’s also a plan to ban elected officeholders from paid lobbying of other units of government where they do not directly serve.

The ethics issue ties into efforts to set an energy policy for Illinois’ future as the state looks to make its energy sources carbon-free, which is partly dependent upon the nuclear fleet of ComEd parent Exelon.

Republican state Rep. Keith Wheeler of Oswego said lawmakers may be in “Hail Mary mode” when it comes to getting an energy package being approved by Monday.

“The big animal yet to be corralled here is supporting the nuclear fleet,” Wheeler said.

The Pritzker administration had offered a $540 million proposal that includes ratepayer subsidies to bail out three of Exelon’s nuclear plants for a five-year period. Exelon wants a 10-year package with a larger ratepayer subsidy amid threats of shutting down the nuclear generators.

The federal ComEd scandal, for which the utility agreed to pay a record $200 million fine, has many legislators leery of dealing with an issue that could cost ratepayers more money. At the same time, Democratic allies in organized labor are urging lawmakers to back a plan to save union jobs at the nuclear plants.

“We must protect our nukes and keeps those jobs and reliability. … We’re making history in this legislation, and we want to do it right,” said Evans, one of the supporters of a union-backed energy proposal that would strongly benefit the company.

In a letter Sunday to supporters of the union-backed energy proposal, Pritzker argued that his administration has sweetened its offer by $200 million and agreed to include support for a third power plant that an independent audit “showed is profitable, but is teetering on the edge of fiscal stability.”

“I support the plants, the workers, and carbon-free energy — but not at any price to ratepayers,” Pritzker wrote. “While Exelon is held accountable to their shareholders to maximize their profits, I am accountable to the working families who will shoulder these additional costs on their energy bills.”

A change in the state’s traditional primary date would not be a unique event. In 2008, Democrats moved it up to February in an effort to bolster then-home state U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s chances of securing the Democratic presidential nomination.

This time around, Democrats are awaiting the results of the federal census — delayed in part by the pandemic as well as failed Trump administration attempts to prevent counting noncitizens — to draw new congressional boundaries for the state.

Illinois will see its 18-member delegation drop to 17 as a result of the census. Democrats now hold a 13-5 majority and are likely to look to Downstate Republican areas to remove the seat.

Democrats did not wait for detailed census results to draw new maps for the General Assembly or the Illinois Supreme Court, instead using estimated survey data in an effort to maintain control of the redistricting process. Unlike the congressional mapmaking, Democrats had to act before a constitutional June 30 date or a process would have given Republicans a 50-50 chance to draw new legislative boundary lines.

Congressional maps based on survey data would be much more likely to be challenged in federal court for alleged violations of voting rights and one-person, one-vote requirements. Also, the census data is not expected until mid-August, too close to the end-of-August date when prospective congressional candidates can begin circulating petitions to appear on the March primary ballot.

The cocktail legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat, received strong bipartisan support. Passed by the House last week, it was sent to Pritzker by the Senate on a 57-1 roll call, with Republican state Sen. Jason Plummer of Edwardsville casting the dissenting vote.

“It’s really important that we give our hospitality small businesses, independent businesses, every lever we can to stay alive and survive during this pandemic,” Feigenholtz said.

Establishments would be allowed to give one free shot, beer or glass of wine between 6 and 10 p.m. to people who show a vaccination card and identification. The promotion could only be offered from June 10 through July 10, and bars and restaurants would be allowed to give a customer a free drink only once.

Local governments would be able to prohibit businesses from offering the promotion.

As for cocktails to go, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday introduced an extension of the concept, based on the measure’s passage and Pritzker’s support, as part of a broad package of proposals aimed at helping businesses as the pandemic eases and more people are vaccinated.

Under the state law, restaurants aren’t allowed to use third-party services like Grubhub or DoorDash to deliver cocktails or single-serving wine

Petrella and Ruthhart reported from Springfield. Pearson reported from Chicago.

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