SPRINGFIELD — When House Speaker Chris Welch, D-Hillside, spoke with Lee Enterprises in late January — just weeks after succeeding House Speaker Michael Madigan to become the first Black person to hold that title — he identified four major issues that needed to be addressed this legislative session: COVID-19, the budget, ethics reform and redistricting.
“Any one of the four is big for someone in a session, I got to deal with four of them,” Welch said, reflecting on the tasks before him and his colleagues.
Four months later, when the Illinois General Assembly gaveled out of its spring legislative session on Tuesday, action had been taken on all items listed — and then some.
Lawmakers passed a $42.3 billion budget for fiscal year 2022 that utilizes $2.5 billion of the $8.1 billion in federal COVID-19 stimulus funds allocated through the American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Joe Biden in March.
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They also completed the once-a-decade state legislative redistricting process, sending Gov. JB Pritzker “a map that will be modeled nationwide,” Democrats claim, for reflecting the diversity of the state.
And with the cloud scandal looming over the General Assembly with the indictment of several Madigan allies in a bribery scheme involving utility giant Commonwealth Edison, ethics reform legislation will hit Pritzker’s desk as well.
“I think we had a very successful session,” Welch said. “I think this has been probably one of the most successful sessions around here for the longest time.”
Durkin: 'They did just the opposite'
Democrats can tally up a lot of wins this legislative cycle. But it was not all smooth-sailing as fissures between the House and Senate bubbled to the surface, resulting in some issues remaining unresolved.
And many question whether Welch lived up to his promise of shepherding in “a new day in Illinois” after decades of iron-fisted rule from Madigan.
Welch followed through on arguably his biggest promise: term limits for legislative leaders, a major priority after Madigan's 36-year reign.
Included in the new House rules approved in February are a 10-year limit on serving as House speaker or minority leader. Legislation codifying legislative term limits into law passed the House in April, but hasn't been considered in the Senate, which also has 10-year leadership term limits in its rules.
But reflecting on the legislative session Tuesday morning, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said he “expected more” from Welch. But instead, it was more ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss.’
This was no more clear than in the legislative redistricting process. Democrats, holding supermajorities in both chambers, completely controlled the process and drew a map that appears to maximize their opportunities while putting Republicans at a structural disadvantage for another 10 years.
"Pardon my French, the Republicans were screwed on the map," Durkin said. "Illinois citizens were led down a road of good government, transparency, and 'we're going to get out of the business of drawing maps, were going to be fair.' They did just the opposite."
Durkin said the way the map was handled was “right out of the 65th and Pulaski playbook,” referring to Madigan’s district office on the Southwest Side of Chicago.
“Sadly though, we saw gerrymandered maps passed by the majority party, drawn behind closed doors with absolutely no transparency and with flawed data,” Durkin said. “When we are in the midst of the worst scandal in Illinois history, don't you think our citizens would want more from us? They desperately want honesty in government, and they did not get it.”
Pritzker told reporters Tuesday he hasn't had a chance to review the proposed district lines.
The ethics reform question
Another pillar of Welch's agenda was ethics reform, an imperative given the ongoing scandal that has ensnarled people in Madigan's orbit and ultimately cost the longest-serving House speaker in American history his gavel.
The votes on ethics reform were bipartisan, but many Republicans criticized the package as inadequate. Many Democrats acknowledged it was just a first step.
The legislation mandates a greater level of financial disclosure from lawmakers and prevents them from lobbying other units of government if the firm also lobbies the General Assembly.
It also seeks to address the "revolving door," banning lawmakers who leave mid-term from lobbying for six months or until their unexpired term is complete, whichever is first. Republicans fought for a one-year ban, but ended up splitting the baby.
The legislation is considerably weaker than even the provisions the city of Chicago, which is exempted, has on the books.
“If we are going to show the public that they can have a renewed sense of trust in state government we’ve got to do something a whole heck of a lot better than this watered-down, diluted and I think in some instances really deceptive ethics reform,” said state Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Morrisonville.
Still, Republican complaints are to be expected. Their superminority status in the legislature often renders them spectators sidelined from participating in the governing process by the majority party.
Democrats made no bones about pushing their priorities.
Beyond the "big four" Welch identified, the party passed an elections bill that moves the state's 2022 primary from March to June, thus allowing them to delay the Congressional redistricting process until U.S. Census data is available later this year.
Other major wins include:
- A bill that creates 110 new cannabis dispensary licenses prioritized for communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs. It aims to diversify a nearly all-white industry and address problems that arose from the 2019 recreational legalization law.
- After clearing both chambers, voters will be asked on the 2022 ballot whether or not the state constitution should be amended to enshrine unionization as a "fundamental right," which would ban right-to-work laws.
- Legislation that would ban local governments from entering into immigration detention contracts with U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If signed into law, those with existing contracts would be forced to end them by Jan. 1.
- Several racial equity measures pushed by the legislative Black Caucus, including the healthcare pillar of their effort to address systemic racism and discrimination following the death of George Floyd, were approved. Juneteenth is also set to become a state holiday.
- Student athletes would be able to profit off their own name, image and likeness under legislation that passed last week.
- A bill that would require all schools in Illinois to provide free menstrual hygiene products in bathrooms used by students in fourth through 12th grade, including bathrooms designated for boys.
- Legislation mandating Asian American history be taught in schools.
- A shot-for-a-shot — bars and restaurants are now able to give a free drink to those who show proof of vaccination. The bill also allows the continuance of a pandemic-era practice of restaurants and bars serving cocktails to-go.
Some of those got Republican votes, but it was by-and-large a wish list of Democratic priorities. Still, the majority party did not get everything it wanted.
Disagreements between the House and Senate prevented legislation reforming the state's Firearm Owner Identification card renewal system from moving forward.
The House barely passed a version that would have mandated applicants and those renewing to provide fingerprints. The Senate passed a version that made fingerprinting optional. Though some were trying to whip votes in the House for the Senate proposal, it did not come to fruition.
Another flop was gaming legislation, which would have allowed in-person betting on Illinois college teams and permitted a sportsbook at Wintrust Arena in Chicago.
It easily passed the House but was not taken up in the Senate due to lack of coordination between the point persons for gaming in each chamber.
Internal disagreements manifested nowhere more than over clean energy legislation. Pritzker and utility Exelon came to an agreement late Monday on subsidies for three of the company's nuclear power plants, considered the lynchpin of a broader clean energy package.
Pritzker and Welch were ready to move forward that evening, but Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, put on the brakes, saying he had to touch base with his members, some of whom registered concerns over 2035 retirement deadlines for certain coal-fired plants, before signing off.
By mid-day Tuesday, Harmon was on board with Pritzker's position and it appears energy legislation could be acted on in the coming weeks, with lawmakers returning for a special session.
Lack of experience a new factor
Many eyes have been on Pritzker, Harmon and Welch — who assumed their roles in 2019, 2020 and 2021, respectively. Governors come and go with regularity, but the lack of experience among state legislative leaders is a new phenomenon.
Harmon, asked about there being daylight between him and Welch, said they "get along well personally and professionally," and that any differences were nothing abnormal.
"We're both new to the job and we both took the job in the middle of a pandemic," Harmon said. "There are always miscues between the House and the Senate — it's just part of the structure."
Welch, at an earlier press conference, agreed, adding that diversity, whether within the House Democratic Caucus or between the House and Senate caucuses, was a strength.
"We're not going to always agree. Sometimes we disagree, and that's because of our great diversity," Welch said. "And we have to be proud of that."
Despite some misfires, Democrats have a lot to be happy about this session. They landed the plane on most of the things they had to do, most notably the budget and redistricting.
Pritzker prescribed a budget of pain and sacrifice in February, but it became less so due to better-than-expected revenues coming into state coffers along with billions in ARPA funds.
And despite incredibly bad optics, Democrats had no problems pushing through their remap. Republicans tried to make an issue of it seemingly every day this legislative session. They were quite convincing.
But, it reminded me of an anecdote from President Barack Obama's 2016 speech before the Illinois General Assembly.
Obama recalled speaking on a bill as a member of the Illinois Senate. He thought he made some pretty good points. Then-Illinois Senate President Pate Phillip walked over.
“Kid, that was a pretty good speech," Obama recalls Phillip saying. "In fact, I think you changed a lot of minds. But you didn’t change any votes.”
In the case of the remap, Democrats had the votes and Republicans didn't, even if they were right on the issue.
And the lack of a sustained, coordinated effort by good government groups and community organizations to put pressure on Democratic lawmakers made the passage of a partisan map a mere formality.
What about the energy bill?
The one major item still hanging out there is an omnibus clean energy bill, but that does not look too far behind with stakeholders agreeing in principle on a framework.
Despite their relative inexperience, Welch and Harmon mostly held their extremely diverse caucuses together when it mattered most.
In some ways, they lived up to their promise of a new day in Illinois politics. In others, it looked like more of the same.
Welch said there will be time for him to reflect on his first session as speaker this summer. After taking up energy this month, lawmakers are not expected back in Springfield until veto session this fall.
"When you engage in something as big as session, there's an end date like today, (and) what you should do when it's all over is take some time to rewind, debrief, (ask) what can you do better, what did you do well (and) what do you want to continue to do," Welch said. "That's just a good business practice."
"At some point we're going to look back on this session ... and see if there are any things we can do better," he said. "I'm sure we're gonna find some things that we can."