Amid mounting pressure from critics, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration is reversing course and agreeing to hold three public meetings on how $109 million in settlement cash from the Volkswagen air-emissions scandal should be spent.
The decision follows complaints by environmentalists, health groups, advocates for alternative fuels and some state lawmakers who said Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Director Alec Messina was cutting backroom deals with big-business representatives on how to spend the windfall. The outrage followed reporting by the Better Government Association.
The meetings will be held May 23 in Springfield, May 24 in East St. Louis and May 30 in Chicago. Each meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and will include public comment, according to the state agency.
Messina had previously balked at holding open meetings, arguing they weren’t necessary and wouldn’t draw enough attendees.
“It became very clear that the public did want to weigh in on this,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, an advocacy consortium that pressured the administration to hold the hearings. “We are looking forward to working with IEPA on maximizing attendance.”
Prior to the EPA’s decision to hold meetings, agency officials met privately with representatives and lobbyists from several businesses, including equipment-maker Caterpillar, before releasing a draft plan for how the VW money would be spent.
Business groups helped formulate the state document, which called for most of the money to be spent on cutting down on emissions from trains, ferries and tugboats rather than on vehicles, which critics say contributes more to air pollution and was at the center of the Volkswagen scandal.
As recently as a week ago, Messina was hoping to begin spending the VW money by this summer, which could provide some good election news for Gov. Bruce Rauner as he runs for re-election in November against Democratic billionaire J.B. Pritzker.
State lawmakers countered those plans as the Illinois Senate passed a bill to force public hearings and form a task force to help determine how and where the VW dollars would be spent.
Other states have held public meetings and Messina was put on the defensive by legislators and advocacy groups for refusing to consider similar public events.
The $109 million is part of a $2.9 billion settlement with the German automaker after it was discovered that the company rigged cars to fool air emissions detectors, showing that the vehicles were cleaner for the environment. In reality, the diesel-engine cars were badly polluting the air.
Sometime after the meetings are held, the Illinois EPA will submit a final plan for spending the money to a national trustee overseeing the Volkswagen settlement.
Brett Chase is a reporter for the Better Government Association. To read more from the BGA, go to bettergov.org.