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Working remotely: Illinois Senators discuss plans to revitalize state’s economy, stabilize energy operations

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Springfield, IL - The COVID-19 pandemic has kept Illinois state lawmakers away from the Capitol since March 5. However, plenty of work is underway remotely to prepare for their return. Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) has delegated members of his leadership team to head bipartisan working groups in 15 key areas.

One of the groups is looking at economic revitalization, which will be a top priority after the pandemic ends. Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) is leading that working group and says members face an extremely tough task, as local governments are struggling to plan their budgets under clouds of uncertainty.

"We want to make sure we have the resources from the federal government and what resources we put out from the state government to make those available to the locals," Koehler said.

The federal stimulus funding can only assist governments with COVID-related issues. That's why Koehler hopes another stimulus package will provide funding for the communities' lost revenue. "We need to make sure that we get stimulus money out to local businesses so they can get back up and running, because that's what helps drive the local economy and helps to again stabilize local units of government."

The economic revitalization group will hold their first meeting on Thursday.

Stability and recovery

Energy was another area with strong potential for reforms in 2020. Sen. Michael Hastings (D-Tinley Park) led discussions for the Senate Energy Committee just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic hit Illinois. Now, he is chairing the energy working group. Hastings says everyone has to think in two phases: stability and recovery.

"Right now the goal is to keep the lights on, make sure the plants stay open so our people don't lose their jobs, and we can start to recover from it," Hastings explained. "I think that's a prudent and wise approach, especially as a leader whether you're in the military or the civilian world. You gotta make sure you're operations are stable and then start focusing on the recovery effort."

He says Illinois' monumental clean energy proposals may have to be put on hold. Lawmakers and advocates will continue to work on those plans at a later time. "I think nothing nothing is lost this year besides time and the opportunity to pass legislation. But that doesn't mean when we go back in we can't just pick up what we left off on last session," Hastings said.

Budget outlook

Meanwhile, both Senators say the state has to know the base revenues in order to piece together a budget. Gov. JB Pritzker has already mentioned revenue estimates from his February budget proposal are no longer valid. But, Koehler has hope. "We get in a recession very quickly. We get out of it very slowly, and it's not going to be any different this time," said the Central Illinois Democrat. "So, we're just gonna have to all roll up our sleeves and work together and understand that we're all in this together."

Hastings says Illinois has to meet several obligations, such as payments for pensions and group health insurance. "There's some things that state employees and some other folks absolutely need. There are some areas where there's some fat and I can tell us this - in a six month to year budget during a pandemic, you're gonna find out where all the fat is because it's not gonna get funded," Hastings emphasized.

Lawmakers hope to pass a budget in late May or early June. The next budget year starts on July 1. "There's a lot of possibilities and where there's a will, there's a way," said Koehler. "We're going to do what we need to do to get a budget in place before July 1 so people have some certainty."

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Mike Miletich

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