CAPITOL RECAP: Pritzker doubtful energy reforms will pass in fall sessions
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CAPITOL RECAP: Pritzker doubtful energy reforms will pass in fall sessions

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SPRINGFIELD — A package of bills aimed at transforming the state’s energy landscape appears unlikely to move during the upcoming fall veto session after Gov. J.B. Pritzker was less than optimistic on the subject this week at an unrelated Chicago news conference.

“It’s certainly something that’s being considered as part of a broader energy package,” Pritzker said of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, one of the main bills backed by green energy advocates. “I don’t know that we’ll be able to get to it during the veto session.”

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The Clean Energy Jobs Act, or CEJA, and a series of other bills faltered at the end of the regular legislative session in May after several committee hearings. Legislators and stakeholders at the time said their goal was to revive the bills for fall veto session, which begins Oct. 28.

While it looks like the reforms are once again on the back burner until at least January, Pritzker spoke in support of CEJA at a news conference Monday, Oct. 7, and said Illinois is already falling short of goals that require the state to hit 16 percent renewable energy generation by 2020.

“We only have about 7 percent of our power being generated by wind and less than 1 percent by solar. We can do so much better, and we need to continue that drive toward renewables and toward clean energy policies,” he said at the news conference Monday.

In August, Vistra Energy, one of the leading energy producers in downstate Illinois, closed four of its eight coal-fired power plants in the state, accelerating calls for energy reforms from various industry players.

Despite those calls, uncertainty has surrounded the energy conversation as Exelon, the parent company of northern Illinois energy supplier ComEd and one of the main advocates for capacity market reforms, has been under federal investigation for its lobbying activities, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Capacity market reforms are also a key piece of CEJA, currently contained in House Bill 3624, sponsored by Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago.

That 365-page bill gives the state greater authority to purchase energy capacity for northern Illinois, allowing it to set its own standards for how much of that capacity comes from renewable energy generators. It also creates programs incentivizing electrification of the transportation sector among several other provisions.

State Sen. Bill Cunningham, a Chicago Democrat and chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, said discussions of a comprehensive energy package have progressed during summer meetings between stakeholders, but the sheer size of the task of bringing together various industries has proved difficult.

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ETHYLENE OXIDE: Gov. J.B. Pritzker is ready to sign a pair of ethylene oxide regulatory bills should the General Assembly pass them, a representative of his office told a House committee Thursday, Oct. 10.

Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell said Pritzker “would be pleased to sign either or both” of two bills which pertain to emissions of ethylene oxide, a gas used in medical supply sterilization and manufacturing processes which has been designated as cancer-causing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

One of those bills would allow home rule municipalities to ban ethylene oxide emissions in their communities, the other would phase out the use of the chemical in Illinois, except in sparsely populated areas, over a period of years.

“Both of these, the administration believes, move in the right direction and we are supportive,” Mitchell said at a hearing of the House Energy and Environment Committee in Chicago.

Mitchell participated in one of four panels at the hearing alongside Illinois EPA Director John Kim. The other three panels included DuPage County lawmakers, members of activists groups who support the two bills, and representatives of the chemical industry, including a pair of scientists paid by trade associations.

The panel discussion featured a look back at the year-long process which led Sterigenics, a medical supply sterilization plant linked to an “elevated cancer risk” in the Willowbrook area by the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, to abandon its plans to reopen.

Opponents of that facility said they would continue to fight for greater regulation of ethylene oxide despite the threat being eliminated in their community.

House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican, said he would continue to push for House Bill 3885 to allow home rule municipalities to ban emissions of the chemical.

Rep. Rita Mayfield, a Waukegan Democrat, is pushing House Bill 3888, which provides that by 2021 no sterilization company could use ethylene oxide within five miles of a region with a population density of at least 10 residents per square mile, or within the same distance from a school or day care.

Hospitals using the gas would have to meet the same requirements by January 2022, while critical access hospitals would have until 2025. Companies outside of those categories would be allowed to emit no more than 30 pounds of ethylene oxide annually.

The regulations would add to a pair of bills passed earlier this year. Those are Senate Bill 1852, named for Willowbrook resident Matt Haller, who died of stomach cancer after being an outspoken opponent of Sterigenics, and Senate Bill 1854. Together the bills were widely touted as creating the most stringent ethylene oxide regulations in the world.

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McHENRY TOWNSHIPS: A new state law allowing voters in McHenry County to more easily dissolve their townships already appears headed for tests in court and on the ballot.

Two township road districts in the county filed a lawsuit in circuit court challenging the law’s constitutionality.

Meanwhile, residents in one of those jurisdictions, McHenry Township, filed a petition with about 1,000 signatures to put the question of the township’s and road district’s dissolution on the March 2020 ballot. Their aim is to save the township by putting the question on a ballot for a primary election, when typically fewer people vote.

The new law is an initiative to lower property taxes in McHenry County by reducing levels of government there, in the sixth most populous county in Illinois. If a township is dissolved, its operations, property and employees would be transferred to the county government.

When he signed it in early August, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a news release: “I look forward to seeing how this bill works for the taxpayers.” Barrington Hills Rep. David McSweeney, the Republican sponsor, said if the law works well in McHenry County, the next step is to expand the provisions to the rest of the state.

But the road districts in Nunda and McHenry townships allege the statute is “arbitrary and unreasonable,” according to a court document.

Illinois’ Constitution prohibits the General Assembly from approving legislation applicable to only a few people — a “special or local” law — when it could be applied to a more general group.

James Militello III, the road districts’ attorney, said the township consolidation law should have applied to all of Illinois, not only McHenry County.

Residents of McHenry Township Road District, one of the parties in the lawsuit, are the first in the county to begin the process outlined in the new law. In late September, a group of voters filed about 1,000 signatures at the township offices to get the question of whether McHenry Township and its road district should be consolidated with the county’s government.

Their motivation, and expectation, is to save the township, Craig Adams, township supervisor, said. The timing of their petition will ensure the proposal is printed on the primary ballot in March, as opposed to the presidential ballot in November when more voters tend to turn out.

Their effort thwarted that of a local official who wanted residents to consider the question in the fall, Adams said.

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PUBLIC SAFETY PENSIONS: A task force Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker formed in February is recommending the state consolidate 649 suburban and downstate police and firefighter pension funds into just two, saying the move would generate billions of dollars in additional earnings over the next 20 years while cutting administrative costs.

But it stopped short of recommending consolidation of other state retirement funds, or the Cook County and Chicago pension funds, saying those are issues that should be reviewed at a later time.

In a 22-page report released Thursday, Oct. 10, the Pension Consolidation Feasibility Task Force urged lawmakers to consider its plan in the upcoming veto session.

“One of the most critical long-term challenges (for the state) is the need to address unfunded pension liabilities for local governments and the surging property tax burdens that they create,” Pritzker said at a news conference in Chicago.

Authors of the report argued that because most of the local pension plans are relatively small, they don’t enjoy the same kind of investment opportunities as larger funds. On average, their annual earnings are about 2 percentage points lower than larger funds. And because each fund has its own board of trustees and investment managers, they are more expensive to administer.

On average, the 649 funds are only 55-percent funded, with 88 of the plans funded at 20 percent or less. Combined, they have a total unfunded liability of $11.5 billion.

By consolidating them into two funds – one for police and one for firefighters – the new funds could generate between $820 million and $2.5 billion in additional earnings in just the first five years, assuming they earn at roughly the same rate as the larger Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund.

Put another way, the report noted, the 649 local pension funds are missing out on roughly $1 million a day in lost earnings potential.

“We know that every dollar we can raise in interest is a dollar that doesn’t have to be raised in taxes or a dollar that doesn’t have to be made in cuts,” state Treasurer Michael Frerichs said during the news conference.

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STUDENT DATA: Nine Democratic lawmakers are calling on Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to investigate the business practices of the College Board and sale of data it collects from students who take the SAT and PSAT exams.

The action comes about a week before high school students throughout the state are due to take the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, or PSAT, which among other things is used to determine eligibility for National Merit Scholarships.

Next spring, high school juniors throughout the state will take the SAT, a college entrance exam that the state mandates as part of its school accountability program.

The College Board’s practice of selling student data through its program called Student Search Service was the subject of national news reports by the New York Times and Washington Post, among others.

In May, a representative from the College Board, Todd Iverson, confirmed to the state Senate Judiciary Committee that the company sells access to data from Illinois students for 45 cents per student. That testimony came as the panel was considering legislation to strengthen the state’s Student Online Personal Protection Act.

But Sara Sympson, a spokeswoman for the College Board, said in an email Thursday, Oct. 10, the nonprofit company does not “sell” the data but, rather, makes the information available “under strict licensing agreements with colleges, scholarship partners, and nonprofit organizations.”

The program is voluntary, she said, and students must “affirmatively declare” they want to have conversations with schools and scholarship providers.

Those who access the data, she said, must adhere to precise rules that require the data be used for only noncommercial, education-related purposes. They also must agree not to share student information with third parties, other than mail service providers and other contractors, and they must destroy the data once their agreement expires.

The letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Cristina Castro, of Elgin; Robert Martwick, of Chicago; Laura Murphy, of Des Plaines; and Robert Peters, of Chicago. Democratic Reps. Robyn Gabel, of Evanston and Will Guzzardi, Lindsey LaPointe, Aaron Ortiz and Ann Williams, all of Chicago, also signed on.

A spokeswoman for Raoul said in an email the office is aware of the lawmakers’ concerns and is looking into the matter.

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CAMERAS AT RED LIGHTS: Bipartisan support appears to be building in the Illinois General Assembly for a statewide ban on red-light cameras.

Those are devices that some municipalities install at intersections to detect drivers running through red lights or turning without coming to a full stop.

Critics of those devices, however, argue they serve only to generate revenue and are a potential source of political corruption.

“Studies have shown that it does not improve safety. In fact, that it increases rear-end collisions,” Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, said in an interview. “So this is really a revenue grab by local governments. And, as we've seen recently, this is obviously tied up, but likely with corruption.”

McSweeney was referring to recent news reports indicating that one private company, SafeSpeed LLC, which supplies red-light cameras to several Chicago suburbs, is the focus of a federal probe that led to raids on the offices and home of state Sen. Martin Sandoval, chairman of the powerful Senate Transportation Committee.

McSweeney has introduced several bills in recent years to ban the use of red-light cameras. One of those passed the House in 2015 but died in the Senate. Another one, House Bill 323, introduced in January, is still pending in the House, and last week it picked up two new Democratic co-sponsors, Reps. Rita Mayfield, of Waukegan, and Sam Yingling, of Grayslake.

And on Monday, Rep. Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, introduced a virtually identical bill, House Bill 3909.

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OBESITY CONCERNS: Current and former leaders of the Illinois Air National Guard said Tuesday, Oct. 8, the obesity rate in the United States has become a national security threat and they urged state lawmakers to invest more in early childhood education programs that focus on nutrition, health and physical activity.

Speaking at the Springfield school district’s Early Learning Center, Brig. Gen. Richard Neely, adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard, and three retired generals pointed to a recent study entitled “Unhealthy and Unprepared in Illinois.” It found 70 percent of young adults aged 17 to 24 in Illinois cannot qualify for military service, including 31 percent who would be disqualified due to obesity.

Those numbers are almost identical to national averages, and the report says it’s a major reason why the U.S. Army fell short of its recruiting goals in 2018.

“As a commander who over the years has really served at all different levels within the organization, it’s surprising to see how challenging recruiting has become over the years,” Neely said. “I was not shocked by it because we’ve seen this in the recruiting numbers, but it was very nice to have the report to then really back up the data that we’re seeing through our experiences.”

Neely was joined at the news conference by retired Gens. Mark Rabin, William Cabetto and Jay Sheedy, all of the Illinois Air National Guard. They are among roughly 750 current or retired generals and admirals who make up a national group, Mission: Readiness, an operation of the Council for a Strong America. Rabin said the purpose of Mission: Readiness is, “to promote physical fitness amongst children so that they grow up into productive and healthy human beings.”

Tim Carpenter, Illinois state director of the Mission: Readiness program, said he believes it’s important for state lawmakers to recognize the value to national security of early childhood education.

“Ongoing trends in obesity must be reversed before our national security is further compromised,” he said. “So we’re calling on state legislators to continue to prioritize investments that promote nutrition and encourage physical activity from an early age, and those continued investments will help us to achieve our goal of ensuring more of our youngest learners can enter kindergarten and start life healthy and better prepared for success in whatever they may choose when they grow up.”

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