Amidst record-setting daily totals in COVID-19 cases and its largest spike in deaths since May, the state of Illinois opted to forgo its end of year legislative session. Citing health and safety concerns of state legislators and staff, Illinois House and Senate leadership cancelled the “veto session” – originally scheduled for November 17–19 and December 1–3. As a result, the attention of state lawmakers to push forward their legislative priorities has shifted toward January as the earliest that the General Assembly is expected to reconvene.
When the calendar flips to 2021, returning and newly-elected legislators will have a responsibility to address the state’s growing need for recovery assistance in light of the worsening pandemic. Bold action on climate in the form of the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA) could play an important role in this. Illinois House and Senate Democrats, both of whom retained super-majorities in their respective chambers through November’s elections, are expected to waste no time in advancing an updated version of CEJA. The revised bill addresses concerns around utility accountability and equity while also providing a crucial model for other states aiming to take big action on climate.
A revised CEJA bill
The Clean Energy Jobs Act can be characterized as the most ambitious state-level climate policy in the Midwest, and possibly in the nation. The bill’s lead House sponsor, Representative Ann Williams (D-Chicago) has described the bill as focusing on four key pillars:
- Promoting jobs and economic opportunity;
- Putting Illinois on a path to 100% renewable energy by 2050;
- Reducing the equivalent of 1 million gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles from the road; and
- Achieving a carbon-free power-sector by 2030.
The most recent revisions to the bill have extended its length to around 900 pages – roughly 200 more than its previous iteration. Changes to the proposed legislation that have taken place in recent months have largely been focused on ensuring utility accountability and cementing equity provisions, both in response to ongoing events and shifting dynamics in the state.
The push for added measures to keep utilities in check has gained traction particularly as details have emerged surrounding the ComEd corruption scandal in which bribes were offered to state lawmakers in exchange for desired policy. An updated fact page on the bill points out that the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) will hold “new authority to oversee utility investments and rates,” and bring the public’s voice into these decisions.
Selection of the widely respected ICC as the body responsible for approving rate hikes should instill confidence in the prospect of consumers rights’ being protected. The bill will also require that each public utility self-fund an independent monitor and chief ethics compliance officer, who will regularly provide public information on company performance and spending. Widespread ethics reforms – such as prohibiting the use of ratepayer funds in legal investigations, requiring pre-approval of all charitable contributions, and barring private meetings between utilities and ICC staff – have also been added to the bill.
The push for stronger equity provisions is aimed at reducing structural barriers that have often kept BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) businesses and communities from receiving the full benefits of clean energy policies. In this case, the move is in response to both the disproportionately harsh impacts of the pandemic on low-income individuals and communities of color as well as shortcomings of the previous climate bill (the Future Energy Jobs Act) in making good on some of its equity promises.
As The Citizens Utility Board’s Christina Uzzo told Climate XChange, “you can grow your coalition of support if you make sure to add not just job training for entry-level positions in the industry, but also create opportunities for people to own their own clean energy businesses. That’s a way to partially right some of the wrongs of historic disinvestment.”
Accordingly, CEJA seeks to expand upon FEJA programs like Illinois Solar for All, which aims to prioritize solar development and job training in economically disadvantaged communities. CEJA increases Solar for All’s budget from $30 million to $50 million annually. Moreover, the suite of additional equity provisions announced are aimed at equitable decarbonization to support communities most impacted by greenhouse gas pollution, an accelerator program to develop an advanced tier of clean energy projects for BIPOC contractors, and a “pay as you save” program allowing customers to purchase energy efficiency upgrades at a guaranteed savings with no credit score required. These measures are all in addition to an expanded job training, placement, and retention program designed to not repeat the past shortcomings of FEJA.
A recently-held virtual lobby day brought over 1,000 Illinoisans together to advocate for CEJA to be a top priority when the General Assembly reconvenes next year. Activists, community leaders, and consumers of all backgrounds and corners of the state recognize the urgency of bold legislation on climate – not in spite of the need to also address the pandemic, but because of it, considering that the same Illinois communities most ravaged by the effects of COVID-19 have long borne the brunt of air pollution, electricity rate hikes, and lack of access to good-paying energy jobs. In the event that no lame-duck session is held before new legislators take office, the bill will be re-introduced as a procedural matter. The bill’s substantial support in both houses – 56 co-sponsors in a 118-member House and 30 in the 59-member Senate – does position it well for early-2021 approval, at which point it would land on the desk of Governor J.B. Pritzker.
Governor Pritzker’s strong existing record on climate includes his 2018 campaign commitments to push the state towards ambitious renewable energy goals and a 2019 executive order entering Illinois into the U.S. Climate Alliance – a group of states committed to upholding the Paris Climate Accords formally exited by the federal government earlier this November. Most recently, the governor has reaffirmed this commitment to climate action through his Eight Principles for a Clean & Renewable Illinois Economy which puts front and center the same ideas of utility accountability and transitional equity addressed by the recent revisions to CEJA. Each of these positions and official actions by Governor Pritzker signal his likelihood to sign a Clean Energy Jobs Act into law, should it arrive on his desk next year.
A model for other states
As anticipation of CEJA’s passage mounts amongst the grassroots coalitions who have pushed the proposal forward, environmentally-minded activists and legislators across the nation can draw meaningful lessons from this bill’s journey. Particularly as the new federal administration led by President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris prepare to take climate action – such as rejoining the Paris Climate Accord – as early as day one, these activists’ push for state-level action is likely to grow bolder in scale and scope.
The chorus of progressive voices advocating for their states to affirm commitments to meeting Paris Agreement targets, as Governor Pritzker did through the U.S. Climate Alliance, could instead become a floor for climate action, not a ceiling. As it jockeys for position as the most ambitious climate policy in the nation, the Clean Energy Jobs Act is poised to serve as a crucial model for other states.
One of the most important lessons gleaned from the enactment of CEJA’s predecessor, FEJA, was the central role of grassroots coalitions in the legislative process – from beginning to end. In what would ultimately become FEJA, “a theory of change [emerged] that the environmental/consumer groups should put forth their own bill first and work for an acceptable compromise with the utilities” rather than strictly playing defense.
The use of this same strategy by the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition – composed of key environmental, business, & faith actors across the state – has successfully brought a robust piece of climate legislation in the form of CEJA to where it is today. In addition to this coalition-driven approach, specific elements of CEJA that can be praised and likely replicated include:
- The bill’s unapologetic focus on job creation and job training, particularly in light of the need for an investment in recovery from the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic. CEJA also tailors numerous provisions directly towards protecting those workers transitioning out of fossil-fuel industries, such as the coal industry).
- The implementation of an independent monitor to uphold utility accountability and designation of power to a trusted consumer agency, in this case the ICC, to protect customers, their interests, and their pocketbooks.
- A centering of environmental and economic justice made clear through targeted equity provisions that work to uplift overburdened communities.
- An effort to build upon past successes that have already garnered public support where possible – rather than starting from scratch – such as expanding the Illinois Solar for All program.
Taken as a whole or in parts, the various provisions of CEJA could certainly provide a useful template for state-level climate action. “This transition is already underway, and CEJA would be Illinois taking the reins of that – which I think is really important,” Christina Uzzo explained. For now, the bill’s advocates will wait through the holiday season in anticipation of the legislature’s possible January return.