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With Madigan Gone, Gates Were Open For Illinois Lawmakers

Illinois lawmakers have left the capitol in Springfield, though the 2021 legislative session is not technically adjourned quite yet.
Jimmy Emerson, DVM
Illinois lawmakers have left the Capitol in Springfield, though the 2021 legislative session is not technically adjourned quite yet.

For veteran lawmakers and journalists used to a well-oiled machine with a well-defined agenda, Illinois’ first legislative session without longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan “was untenable for a while,” said Hannah Meisel, a government and politics editor at NPR Illinois.

The longtime Democratic leader served as speaker for 36 years before he was voted out in January by his colleagues. Madigan later resigned his seat entirely, and people in his inner circle have been charged with multiple counts of bribery.

While the former House speaker liked to play gatekeeper, and keep tight control of the agenda, his successor flung those gates open this year — for better or for worse.

“His replacement, Speaker Emanuel Chris Welch... is just a different sort of personality — much more outgoing,” Meisel explained on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

She added: “I think one of the wrinkles that we ran into ... is that [Welch] didn't necessarily want to say no to any of his members, unlike Speaker Madigan before him. And that meant a lot of legislation was passing out of House committees, and there was just a lot going on. It was, at times, unmanageable.” Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a fellow Democrat, grew frustrated enough to threaten multiple vetoes unless lawmakers could make key fixes.

After going into overtime, the Illinois legislature approved a 2022 budget of $42 billion in the early hours of June 1. Lawmakers also passed ethics changes and a plan that shifts next year’s primary from March to June. But, as Meisel explained in an analysis of the session, they are not technically adjourned quite yet.

Among the issues left on the table is a clean energy package. It stalled because of a debate over nuclear subsidies for Exelon (which operates six nuclear power plants in Illinois) and a request to provide exemptions for the Prairie State Generating Station, a massive coal plant in the state’s southwest corner.

Hannah Meisel joins St. Louis on the Air

“It is the state's largest polluter and one of the largest polluters in the entire United States, so it's this sticking point [for] environmentalists and the governor, [who] have said that they want all coal-fired power plants to be shut down by 2035,” Meisel said.

Meisel explained that the debate over Illinois’ clean energy future is not only complicated, but emotional as well, especially for those who found careers in coal-fired power plants.

“They're a major economic generator, so for the state to say, ‘Well, you have to shut down by 2035’ — that is forced closure. And, yes, they want to help those folks transition to clean-energy jobs, but the argument there is, well, it's just a job to construct a wind farm or a solar farm. After that, you don't make a career out of going there every day and operating it. It's not the same thing.

“We can't come away [from the 2021 session] without some sort of energy deal,” Meisel said. “I'm hearing [that] in the next two weeks, they'll be back in Springfield to deal with this.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.