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‘I Wanted More,’ Pritzker Says Of Ethics Bill; Promises Additional Ethics Provisions In Energy Deal

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  Governor JB Pritzker wants to make it clear that he’s not a wholesale believer in the ethics reform package Democratic lawmakers pushed through the legislature this week.

The Democrat, who has less than a year and a half left in his first term as governor, takes umbrage with the suggestion he claimed any sort of victory after the ethics legislation’s passage.

“It’s not a perfect bill,” Pritzker told NPR Illinois in an interview Thursday. “The definition of compromise is everybody didn't get everything that they wanted. I think that we need to do more and I’ll push for it every single year that I'm in office.”

In the wake of an ongoing federal investigation into political influence in Illinois — a widespread probe that’s so far ensnared more than a dozen current and former politicians, lobbyists and others from Chicago to Springfield — lawmakers made overtures to ethics reform beginning in late 2019, convening a panel to study the issue.

But the weekly hearings were quickly forgotten after COVID-19 hit Illinois and a report summarizing the Ethics and Lobbying Commission’s work was never published last spring. More than a year later, on the last regularly scheduled day of the General Assembly’s Spring legislative session Monday, Democrats finally introduced their ethics package and passed it through the General Assembly in 12 hours.

Nearly all Republicans grudgingly voted for it, reticent to vote against anything labeled ethics reform.

‘I wanted more’

Pritzker has consistently called for a few things in the realm of ethics reform — the first of which he’s said should be obvious.

“Elected officials shouldn’t be allowed to retire and immediately start lobbying their former colleagues,” Pritzker said in his State of the State Address in January 2020. “It’s wrong and it’s got to stop.”

The governor made a similar proclamation in his combined SoTS speech and Budget Address in February, delivered virtually due to the pandemic. 

“We must end the General Assembly’s revolving door allowing legislators to get paid as lobbyists the day after they leave office,” Pritzker said, adding that restoring public trust in government “is of paramount importance.”

But what Democrats passed earlier this week — with begrudging votes from most Republicans reticent to vote against an ethics bill — includes wide loopholes. The revolving door provision for lawmakers doesn’t take effect until Jan. 2023, and even then, lawmakers are only prohibited from lobbying for six months after they leave the General Assembly.

And even then, the six-month ban only applies for the term for which a lawmaker was elected to serve, meaning a state representative could start lobbying right after he or she leaves office in the January after an election and begin lobbying a fresh General Assembly the next day.

“I wanted more out of that provision,” Pritzker said. “I wanted it to be a longer…period of time for the revolving door. But it's progress that we have even a six month period.”

Since that ethics commission first met a year and a half ago, Illinois’ political landscape has radically changed. Former Senate President John Cullerton retired in January 2020, leaving the Senate’s Democratic caucus in the hands of Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) — a longtime friend of Pritzker’s, but someone with whom he hasn’t quite been aligned politically in recent years.

And and even more seismic shift has occurred in the Illinois House in the last year after longtime House Speaker Mike Madigan was named “Public Official A” in charging documents against influential electric utility Commonwealth Edison last summer. Though he has not been charged, ComEd has admitted it engaged in a years-long bribery scheme to curry favor with the former speaker.

‘Mike Madigan is gone’

In January, Madigan couldn’t win enough support from his own House Democratic members for a historic 19th term as speaker, and in February he stepped down from the legislature after 50 years. Shortly after, Madigan abandoned his post as Chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois. His only official title is now Chicago’s 13th Ward Committeeman in the southwest side fiefdom he built over decades in power.

Five former lobbyists and executives of ComEd have been indicted; one is cooperating. And in the waning days of session last week, Madigan’s longtime chief of staff and right-hand man was charged with perjury for allegedly lying to a grand jury about communications between Madigan and confidante Mike McClain, a former ComEd lobbyist charged with helping orchestrate the bribery scheme.

As Madigan became increasingly unpopular in recent years — thanks in large part to former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s lavish spending aimed at making the former speaker an infamous household name synonymous with political corruption — Pritzker sought to distance himself from the political powerhouse even while still a candidate. And as a billionaire, Pritzker was mostly self-funded and didn’t need Madigan’s fundraising.

Despite that angle failing in the 2018 race where Pritzker beat Rauner handily, the governor’s political foes know there’s still some cache in tying Pritzker to Madigan; the message was effective in the campaign against the governor’s graduated income tax plan last fall. Voters rejected Pritzker’s signature campaign promise to amend the state’s constitution to allow for a progressive tax structure, which the governor promised would bring an additional $3.4 billion in state revenues annually.

After election day, Pritzker and other Democratic leaders acknowledged Madigan’s name was toxic to the party and began calling for his ouster — first as chair of DPI and later as House Speaker.

But on Thursday, Pritzker waved off the notion from Republicans that Madigan is still somehow calling the shots in Springfield, characterizing the idea as “tired old talking points” from Republicans, whom he called “carnival barkers.” 

“Mike Madigan is gone,” Pritzker said. “He's no longer in government…These are the folks who’ve been railing against Illinois and, frankly, driving people away because they don’t really believe in this state,” Pritzker said. “That’s why they throw Mike Madigan’s name around. They can’t think of anything new to talk about.”

Pritzker hasn’t formally announced his reelection bid yet, but in March the billionaire dumped $35 million dollars more into his campaign account.

‘Does that sound fair to you?’

New House Speaker Chris Welch is, in a lot of ways, Madigan’s polar opposite. Unapologetically progressive, Welch told NPR Illinois in April that equity must be at the center of every major piece of legislation his chamber passes.

In many ways, Pritzker’s politics line up with Welch’s. But Republicans say that dynamic only serves to lock out the minority party from the legislative process even more as time goes on.

Legislative redistricting, the once-in-a-decade process that redraws elected officials’ district boundary lines the year after a Census count, is always acrimonious. The stakes are high both for communities hoping for representation that understands their unique needs, or even comes from their shared racial, ethnic or religious background, and also for the politicians whose careers could be ended by the way the lines are drawn.

While running for governor, Pritzker said he would pledge to veto any legislative remap proposal “that is in any way drafted or created by legislators, political party leaders and/or their staffs or allies.”

Then-candidate Pritzker said the state’s constitution should be amended to create an independent commission to draw legislative maps, “but in the meantime, I would urge Democrats and Republicans to agree to an independent commission to handle creating a new legislative map.”

But that didn’t happen; Democrats contend doing so without a constitutional amendment would be unlawful. And Pritzker has softened his pledge, saying only that he’d veto an “unfair map” approved by legislators, defined by meeting the metrics in both the federal Voting Rights Act and a similar state statute.

Pritzker on Thursday lamented the lack of a commission, but said he had to deal with reality. Democrats last Friday pushed through new maps for the Illinois House and Senate, redrew the Illinois Supreme Court’s five districts for the first time in nearly 60 years and also passed a new map for the Cook County Board of Review. Congressional maps, however, are waiting.

“Look, I’d prefer an independent commission as a method of drawing the maps,” Pritzker said. “But…there was no constitutional amendment around that. There was no independent commission. What got served up to me was one map.”

Those maps were drawn without official 2020 Census data, which is delayed until August due to the pandemic. Community advocacy groups begged Democrats to delay the mapmaking process until Illinois gets that new data, but the majority party forged ahead with aggregated data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, plus feedback from dozens of sparsely attended meetings in many corners of the state and on Zoom. 

Republicans and government reform organizations this spring joined with community groups asking for Democrats to wait for official Census data. But the the GOP also had extra incentive for a delay beyond June 30th — a 50/50 shot at controlling the hyper-partisan redistricting process after an appointed panel of mapmakers inevitably deadlocks. 

Pritzker blamed GOP lawmakers for not proposing their own maps, but if Republicans were to do that, it would be an admission that non-Census data is acceptable to use in redistricting. The governor also pointed to comments from State Rep. Tim Butler (R-Springfield) earlier this spring at a press conference with U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, who said a fair map would elect more Republicans. 

“Does that sound fair to you?” Pritzker asked Thursday. “Does that sound like Republicans are really fighting for fair maps? That's not what they're fighting for…What they want to draw is a partisan map in their favor. So at this point I don't believe anything that they say about this.”

Pritzker says his team is reviewing whether the new legislative maps comport with the Voting Rights Act and will make a decision on signing them after they’ve been analyzed.

“I think it's important for us to evaluate whether we're going to get diverse candidates from all over the state running in these districts,” Pritzker said. “Even if they're not majority-minority districts, do we have the opportunity to elect diverse people? …That's not something that Republicans care about.”

Republicans in recent years have rarely gotten a say in budget-making under Democratic supermajorities and a Democratic governor. But the GOP this year says they’re especially railroaded.

Faster-than-expected economic recovery from the COVID recession and unexpected windfalls in federal stimulus funds allowed Democrats to craft a budget with very little of the “painful cuts” Pritzker said would be coming after his graduated income tax failed at in November. But more than half of his proposed cuts to tax incentive programs for businesses were approved by the legislature, sparing some like a popular tax credit for donors to private school scholarships. 

“Because we got rid of corporate welfare — $656 million in corporate welfare — we have eliminated $656 million of a structural deficit that the state has been facing because we're going to benefit from getting rid of those tax breaks for years to come,” Pritzker said. 

A $42 billion dollar budget approved on party lines holds overall spending mostly flat, but line items within the spending plan have been tweaked. The governor painted Democrats as the party of fiscal responsibility because the budget doesn’t rely on federal stimulus money to fill the state’s structural budget deficit.

In Sept. 2019, Pritzker asked his agency heads for suggestions on 6.5% across-the-board budget cuts. But those proposed cuts have still never been made public, and asked Thursday if that was a real exercise, Pritzker said NPR Illinois was parroting “Republican talking points.”

“Our state has been underfunded,” Pritzker said. “And we've seen a hollowing-out of agencies. So in many cases we've had to make priorities, make real decisions about how to balance the budget…I would like to put more into [the Department of Children and Family Services] and we can't without more revenue. We had to make many many tough decisions in this budget, the Republicans didn't want to make any tough decisions.”

'They can try whatever they like'

Though Pritzker expressed disappointment in the final ethics bill, the governor promised more ethics provisions in a huge energy package that’s nearly finalized — unless something goes off the rails — and that lawmakers will return to Springfield to vote on later this month.

“Some of them actually directly address the concerns that were raised in these latest scandals around Exelon and their subsidiary ComEd,” Pritzker said, referring to the $200 million deferred prosecution agreement ComEd signed last summer.

One of Pritzker’s first executive orders after being sworn in promised Illinois would abide by the Paris Climate Accords, which President Donald Trump had pulled out of.

And more than two years later, Illinois is on the precipice of adopting new standards for energy production in the state, laying out goals to fight climate change and funding mechanisms to incentivize more renewable energy investment in the state.

Negotiations went on for months between environmental groups, energy interests ranging from nuclear to coal to renewables, organized labor, lawmakers and and Pritzker’s office. Unions have a vested interest in for plant workers’ sake and environmental groups acknowledge the road to 100% renewable energy must be paved by nuclear. Illinois is the most nuclear-reliant state in the nation, and half the state’s energy needs are supplied by nukes.

In the final weeks, attention centered on nuclear giant Exelon’s ask for millions of dollars in state subsidies to keep three of the company’s unprofitable power plants open. Exelon successfully got a 10-year subsidy agreement from lawmakers in 2016 for two other plants it threatened to close.

Pritzker said it was a “misread entirely” to say Exelon had the upper hand in negotiations at the end of the day.

“The negotiations were difficult, they were long, but we fought hard for our principles and we wanted to make sure it's doing good for ratepayers,” Pritzker said. “We wanted to make sure that we were keeping clean energy alive in this state, especially by keeping our nuclear plants open, and making sure that we save the jobs at those plants.”

The governor also said “no doubt Exelon is trying to make sure that their shareholders are getting paid” as the company prepares to spin off its nuclear generation business by early next year.

Despite reaching impasse with Exelon over the weekend, Pritzker’s office had a tentative deal with the company by Monday — the last day before lawmakers were supposed o adjourn. But in the waning hours of session, a new issue emerged as a sticking point in negotiations, despite environmental groups’ claims a compromise had already been made.

Municipal-owned coal-fired power plants like City Water Light and Power in Springfield, the Prairie State Generation Campus in Marissa that sells electricity to 60 municipalities and co-ops in Illinois say they can’t abide by a law that forces them to close by 2035. And fingerprinting has alleged some lawmakers whose districts include some of those member communities are worried their cities and towns will be upside down on the bonds that financed the project, which was built in 2012.

The governor said a 2035 shutdown date was already a concession environmental interests made to the plants; initially the date they wanted was 2030, he said. The plant in Marissa is one of the largest polluters in the nation, according to environmental research.

But in a statement earlier this week, Prairie State said it was “vital to maintaining grid reliability, energy affordability and economic prosperity” as the state transitions to meet carbon-reduction goals.

“Prematurely shuttering Prairie State in 2035 would place new financial burdens on communities who own the plant by essentially forcing them to pay for two sources of power: the energy already owned through their partnerships with Prairie State Energy Campus, and replacement power to cover that loss,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement. “That is an additional cost our not-for-profit member communities and their ratepayers cannot afford.”

Asked if Pritzker was worried the delay in the deal would allow the coal-fired plants to negotiate more than he’d committed to, the governor said “absolutely not.”

“The Senate President, the Speaker of the House and I all have said and have stood up for decarbonization,” Pritzker said. “[The municipal coal-fired plants] can try whatever they like, I suppose, but…I think that's the best deal that we could get is the one that is being put on the table.”

Meisel works for Capitol News Illinois.