Illinois May Be Emerging As One of America’s Environmental Leadership States. The seemingly sudden passage of several mega-measures by the Illinois General Assembly in the final days of the spring legislative session undoubtedly surprised many Illinoisans who learned that, over the first weekend of summer, the legislature legalized recreational cannabis use, expanded gaming, launched a long overdue infrastructure program, protected access to reproductive health care, and passed a balanced budget for a change.
A bit overshadowed by those headlines are some significant advances toward environmental protection, including action on climate change, clean water, toxic chemicals, and more. These wins suggest that Illinois may be emerging as one of America’s environmental leadership states, at a time when state innovation has never been more critical given the active deconstruction of our national environmental protection framework at the hands of the Trump administration and their polluter allies. Here’s a look at some of the highlights of 2019.
A Ban On Toxic BPA In Store and Bank Receipts
Illinois will join the European Union in banning BPA (bisphenol A) from customer receipts beginning in January. BPA is an endocrine disrupting chemical that has been used as a coating on the shiny, thermal paper used in many receipt, where it poses a risk to both workers and customers. Two freshman lawmakers, State Representative Karina Villa (D-West Chicago), and State Senator Ann Gillespie (D-Arlington Heights) teamed up to move the ban to Gov. Pritzker’s desk.
New Training Opportunities for Clean Water Jobs
Illinois needs significant investments to address drinking and surface water quality concerns, and communities of color and other disadvantaged populations are more likely to suffer from poor water quality. These Illinoisans will now have better access to the jobs created in solving these problems thanks to the Clean Water Workforce Pipeline program created under legislation passed by State Representative Justin Slaughter (D-Chicago), and new State Senator Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago), which will support community organizations in placing those most in need of quality jobs in apprenticeship programs to prepare for water infrastructure jobs.
Investing in Environmental Infrastructure
The long overdue capital investment plan includes over $1 billion in environmental investments, including over $300 million in clean water infrastructure, transportation electrification projects, funds to help the Pritzker administration lead by example with energy efficiency and renewable energy projects for state facilities, and funds for Illinois DNR to acquire natural areas through the Open Land Trust program. In most cases, these funding levels are short of the overall multiyear need, but they are critical downpayments on long term investments and will help the new administration begin to build an environmental and conservation legacy after years of neglect of these priorities.
Making Polluters Pay for Coal Ash Cleanup
Community members fed up with living near giant piles of toxic coal ash seeping into groundwater teamed up with State Senator Scott Bennett (D-Champaign) and State Representative Carol Ammons (D-Urbana) to pass SB 9, which will lead to rules requiring these health threats to be cleaned up, at the expense of the coal companies who created them.
Repealing the Prohibition on Climate Action
In 1998, the coal industry pushed through a broad prohibition against Illinois EPA regulating greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, Illinois has been benched on the sidelines while other states adopted innovative emissions reduction programs that spurred job growth in clean energy and consumer savings from energy efficiency. At the time, the prohibition passed over the strong objections of environmental champions, but coal carried the day. This year’s repeal is a sign of how things have changed in 2019, with the urgency of the climate crisis prevailing over objections from coal. Governor Pritzker’s early, strong action to commit Illinois to the Paris Climate Agreement’s emissions reduction targets, and a 100% clean energy goal for the state, were important in setting this new direction.
Broad Support for 100% Clean Energy
With consideration of comprehensive energy policy slated for consideration this fall, a wide variety of proposals have been introduced, but none saw floor debate in either the full House or Senate. However, the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA) introduced by State Senator Cristina Castro (D-Elgin) and State Representative Ann Williams (D-Chicago) has attracted by far the most support from lawmakers, with cosponsors approaching majorities in each chamber, while competing proposals from coal companies drew broad opposition. We’re excited to continue working with the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition to build support for CEJA’s 100% clean energy goal, with a focus on economic benefits for disadvantaged communities and a just transition for workers and communities dependent on 20th century technologies, over the summer and into the fall veto session.
Why is Illinois seemingly headed in a new direction of environmental leadership? Three key elements are people, partnerships, and politics.
People are Connecting To the Capitol
Illinoisans are waking up to the role that state and local action can, and must, play in moving forward on the issues they care about, even as the Trump administration moves backward or ignores their priorities.
Sierra Club had strong participation from members in its Volunteer Lobby Team program, in which members commit to learning the details of priority environmental issues and visiting with their local State Representative or State Senator once each Spring to explain the issues and ask for their support. This Spring Sierra Club volunteers held over 50 district office visits, and earned support for a wide range of issues from legislators across the political spectrum. These in-district conversations with volunteers, not paid lobbyists, really help key priorities stand out during a very busy spring.
Partnerships Are Key
New alliances are key to both building a bigger, more diverse environmental movement, but also in advancing a bold progressive agenda. This spring, Sierra Club teamed up with labor unions representing workers in the water sector and social justice advocates to write and pass the Clean Water Workforce Pipeline Act, and with the United Food and Commercial Workers to ban the BPA receipts that are a health concern for their members as well as an unnecessary toxin. We’re also proud founding members of Forward Illinois, a new alliance of statewide progressive organizations focused on supporting each other in our efforts to enact nation-leading policies that make Illinois healthier, cleaner, more prosperous, and more equitable. We’re thrilled at the big wins for the broader progressive agenda and ready to build on these partnerships for bigger wins in the future.
Politics – Elections Have Consequences
The progress of 2019 is a direct outcome of the 2018 elections. Governor J.B. Pritzker proposed and enacted a big and bold legislative agenda, all while building a team on the fly and staffing up state agencies. This year’s freshman class of legislators includes an outstanding group of women who not only took the lead in sponsoring bold ideas, but made it clear from the start that they were breaking the mold of “target” legislators from swing districts, who are normally coached to avoid tough votes that might be fodder for campaign attacks. The Class of 2019 is led by women who ran not to play it safe but to be bold, and resist the daily outrages coming from the Trump administration with clear moves in the opposite direction. Sierra Club mounted its largest volunteer and voter contact election campaign ever in 2018 to elect just these types of new leaders, and we can’t wait to see what we can do together next.
Let’s hope this spring’s big steps forward are the first on a long journey toward the future we want for all in Illinois. The challenges we face together call for nothing less.
Jack Darin is the Director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter