Chicago Tribune. March 22, 2021.

Editorial: Billions in federal money headed to Illinois. How many pickleball courts can it buy?

Let’s say you lost your job and you’re late on rent when an unexpected tax refund shows up in your mailbox. Or you’re a young adult with student loans who gets a nice birthday check from Grandma. In both cases, there is bound to be a temptation to spend the money on a fancy meal or a fun item from your wish list.

Illinois lawmakers, this is an exercise for you.

State government expects to receive as much as $7.5 billion from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed by President Joe Biden. Another $5.5 billion will go to city and county governments. And already that money has some lawmakers feeling the urge to splurge. It’s tradition.

Less than two years ago as lawmakers jammed a major capital spending bill through the General Assembly, they made sure to sweeten it with more than a billion dollars in pork projects: barely vetted state grants to private schools, museums, theaters, schools and parks, including pickleball courts and dog parks.

Who pays for these projects? You do, through a doubling of the gasoline tax, higher vehicle sticker fees and expanded gambling that — fingers crossed — will cover the costs of lawmakers’ long wish list. Gamble away, everyone! Your state needs you.

But then consider:

Last year, as the pandemic was crushing the economy, Gov. J.B. Pritzker borrowed nearly $2.9 billion from the Federal Reserve to cover Medicaid and other bills. Even before 2020, our state had the puniest of rainy day funds because Illinois politicians had long declined to set aside money for an emergency. Before the pandemic, Iowa had enough money in its emergency stash to fund state government operations for 37 days. Illinois had enough for 30 seconds.

Pritzker agrees on the need to repay borrowed funds, but he also wants to spread some of the windfall around “to help us stimulate the economy to make sure we’re bringing back the jobs.” State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, says, “Many, many communities in the state have businesses, especially in the food, restaurant, bar, hospitality industries, that have been dramatically impacted by the COVID restrictions and closures. And I think that we should better design programs to deliver aid to those businesses.”

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Chicago Sun-Times. March 19, 2021.

Editorial: Illinois Legislature must power up ethics reforms for utility companies

Reform is way overdue, as last year’s ComEd scandal made clear.

Illinois is more than ready for utility ethics reform.

Last July, ComEd entered into a deferred federal prosecution agreement in which the electric utility paid $200 million and admitted to a longtime scheme involving jobs and contracts to influence allies of former House Speaker Michael Madigan. Reformers say the scheme illustrated the outsized ability of utility companies to shape state legislation over the years in a way that has cost consumers billions of dollars.

“If there is anything that ComEd has shown, it is that there is a compelling need for better accountability and reform in the utility regulatory system in Illinois and in the way utility laws get decided by the Legislature,” Howard A. Learner, executive director of the Environmental Policy & Law Center, told us on Friday.

We agree. Reforming the way the Legislature enacts utility legislation and oversees rate hikes is long overdue. Gov. J.B. Pritzker said as much last August when he promised: “Their days of outsized influence on the process are ending.”

Now, Pritzker and the Legislature must follow through.

Along with other energy bills that have been introduced this session, a major one titled the Clean Energy Jobs Act advanced out of committee last week with stronger ethics language for utilities, including making permanent the hiring and lobbying reforms ComEd agreed to over the life of its deferred prosecution agreement and installing an independent monitor at each of the state’s utilities.

On Thursday, AARP Illinois, the Illinois Public Interest Research Group and the Environmental Law & Policy Center announced the creation of a new coalition, Take Back Our Power, to push for a series of reforms.

Among those reforms, some of which overlap with those in CEJA, are: returning some of the excess profits ComEd made through its scheme to ratepayers; conducting a thorough, independent investigation of ComEd; banning political donations by regulated utilities, and restoring the oversight authority by utility regulators that has been chipped away over time.

Illinois should also stop guaranteeing profits to utilities through automatic rate hikes. ComEd has benefited from so-called formula rates, a part of the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act enacted in 2011, which made it easier for ComEd to charge more for electricity without going before the Illinois Commerce Commission. Illinois PIRG says formula rates have raised ComEd delivery rates by 37% and fattened the utility’s wallet to the tune of $5 billion.

Representatives of utilities say they need formula rates because their shareholders want certainty. But doesn’t everyone?

Illinois has ambitious plans to funnel more renewable energy into its power grid while at the same time electrifying more of its transportation and building sectors, which will need billions of dollars of investment. The money to do that must be spent wisely.

Yes, the Legislature must deal with the budget and other complicated issues in this session. In the end, though, Illinois needs to enact a major energy bill, and that bill should include accountability and ethics reforms for utilities.

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Moline Dispatch. March 21, 2021.

Editorial: Making the maps fair

Legislators in Illinois and Iowa have begun the once-per-decade process of redrawing political boundaries.

Last week, the Illinois Senate convened its redistricting committee, while in Iowa lawmakers have appointed its redistricting advisory commission. But just as it has with every other facet of our lives, the pandemic has upset the redistricting process. A month ago, the U.S. Census Bureau announced delivery of the detailed data traditionally used to draw new lines would be delayed, possibly until Sept. 30.

That’s complicating life in states all across the country, including Iowa and Illinois.

In Illinois, if lawmakers don’t produce a map of legislative districts by June 30, the task would fall to an 8-member bipartisan commission, which has an Aug. 10 deadline. If a map isn’t produced, a tie-breaking ninth person would be chosen.

In Iowa, if a legislative map isn’t produced by Sept. 15, the task of overseeing the process would fall to the state Supreme Court.

Needless to say, this is a mess, and states aren’t happy. Ohio sued the Census Bureau, demanding the data be delivered by the end of this month. That’s a pretty big ask, one the Census Bureau says is impossible.

Still, the Biden administration could help states by finding a better estimate for the delivery of data than just “by Sept. 30.” It might also speed up the process.

Accuracy is vital, but throughout the pandemic we have seen innovation we hadn’t previously thought possible. Is it not possible in this case? Just look at development of COVID-19 vaccines. Once thought to be a years-long process, they were developed in record time.

Local governments also have a stake in this. In Rock Island County, they’re looking to downsize the board, and having this data available is vital.

Absent relief from the federal government, though, states have some tough decisions to make, not least is what set of information to use to redraw boundaries. There has been talk in Iowa and Illinois of using Census Bureau estimates, but that could lead to legal challenges. Using less reliable data also could undermine public confidence.

Frankly, if estimates are found to be reliable, so be it. But we’re skeptical. There’s a reason the decennial Census has been the basis for redrawing districts. To go in another direction would make it incumbent upon lawmakers to demonstrate alternative data sets are not just reliable but can withstand legal scrutiny; using them simply because they’re available in time to meet a deadline is insufficient.

Which brings us to the question of who oversees the process.

In Illinois, Senate President Don Harmon is pledging to get the job done by the June 30 deadline. To do otherwise, he said in a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed, would turn map-making over to “a small commission of appointed political insiders.”

Harmon rightly pledges to ensure that minority communities that have traditionally been ignored will be guaranteed fair representation. But we don’t know why a bipartisan commission couldn’t accomplish that task. And, let’s face it, relying on lawmakers to draw these maps has only yielded gerrymandered districts.

It’s true that Gov. JB Pritzker has promised to veto an unfair map, and Emanuel “Chris” Welch, the new speaker of the House, reportedly said the other day he’s committed to equitable representation. However, there’s little specificity to these promises.

In Iowa, meanwhile, some Democrats are worried Republicans who control the House, Senate and governorship will use this opportunity to upend the state’s unique system, which relies on the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency to draw boundaries.

Iowa law also puts in place a set of rules that significantly limit political considerations.

Republicans have said they’ll honor Iowa’s system, but there’s little trust between the parties and the majority has shown its propensity to ram big changes through the Legislature with little public scrutiny.

Senate President Jack Whitver did raise the prospect the other day of suing the federal government. But, so far, it looks like Iowa, like other states, is struggling to find a way to get the job done.

As for who approves the maps, our preference has been for a process that is insulated as much as possible from politics. This is why we have urged Illinois to go to an independent commission; it is why we have long admired Iowa’s method, which filters out much of the partisan politics. It is why we believe if the task falls to the Iowa Supreme Court this year, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. The court could just direct the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency to do the job with the same rules it has followed in the past.

No matter how these questions are sorted out, we hope people in both states will send this message to politicians in Des Moines and Springfield: Drawing political boundaries is a process that should be about setting the table for fair elections and equitable and representative districts and not for ensuring partisan advantage and protecting incumbents.

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