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Illinois won’t get a clean energy bill until Democrats learn to compromise

Coal-burning plants in Southern Illinois are at the crux of the debate. The inability of Democrats to agree on clean energy legislation is a prime example of what happens when legislators refuse to settle for most of what they want rather than all.

A Sept. 2010 photo shows the Prairie State Energy Campus, then still under construction in southern Illinois in Washington County. The energy campus includes both a coal mine and an electric generation plant.
A Sept. 2010 photo shows the Prairie State Energy Campus, then still under construction in southern Illinois in Washington County. The energy campus includes both a coal mine and an electric generation plant.
Sid Hastings/Sun-Times Media

Democratic lawmakers in Illinois are used to getting what they want. With strong super-majorities in the Senate and House, they typically don’t have to look beyond their own caucus to move legislation forward. There are many Democrats who value bipartisanship, but they certainly don’t need it to push through most of their legislative initiatives.

When working from within the minority party, compromise is necessary. No Republican Senator can pass a bill without first reaching across the aisle and finding at least 12 Democrats who will support their bill. We must negotiate, find common ground, and recognize that sometimes incremental steps forward are better than no steps forward at all.

In conversations with constituents, this respectful “give-and-take” is what the people of Illinois want from their elected officials.

The inability of Democrats to agree on comprehensive clean energy legislation is a prime example of what happens when legislators dig in their heels and refuse to settle for most of what they want rather than all of what they want. This is new territory for the majority party, and in the end, it is energy ratepayers and taxpayers who will suffer the most from their inability to find common ground on a clean energy bill.

Coal-burning plants in southern Illinois are at the crux of the debate. Environmentalists want the plants closed ASAP, while labor unions want those jobs protected, or at least extended. The Prairie State Energy Campus provides coal-based energy to 2.5 million homes, many in the suburbs of Chicago. Municipalities, including St. Charles, Geneva, and Batavia in the 33rd Senate District, are part of a consortium that made a significant financial investment in the Prairie State Energy Campus as a means of providing reliable and affordable energy to residents. Municipalities have long-term bond debt extending as far out as 2042 to finance the delivery of this energy to consumers. Environmentalists know this but don’t seem to care that if this facility is closed prematurely, many communities will have to pay to secure energy elsewhere, while still paying off Prairie State bonds for energy they’re not receiving.

Playing a costly game

As the majority party continues running in circles trying to find a way to placate environmentalists and organized labor unions, it is clear that the best interests of Illinois energy consumers are not the focal point of these negotiations.

Meanwhile, Exelon has been waiting for a deal to emerge that would allow two nuclear energy plants that currently provide about one-third of the state’s clean, carbon-free energy to remain open. As talks continue to stall, Exelon is taking steps to take nuclear plants in Byron and Dresden offline before the end of 2021.

Through sheer stubbornness, an unwillingness to compromise, and a refusal by Democrats to make a decision that will upset longtime and reliable supporters, we are watching a dangerous and costly game of political chicken. Unless a compromise is reached, nuclear plants that supply extremely clean energy will go offline and Illinois will be forced to turn to less desirable energy production at a higher cost. For Gov. Pritzker and legislators aligned with environmental groups, they seem willing to take a giant step backward in Illinois’ clean energy portfolio rather than compromise and extend the lives of coal-burning plants to the point when municipal debt payments expire.

Embrace new technologies

Environmentalists talk about emerging technologies regarding wind and solar generation, yet ignore similar emerging technologies already being funded by the state and federal government that would allow Illinois to become a leader in carbon sequestration and emissions reductions. By embracing these new fossil fuel technologies, Illinois could continue to move forward toward a cleaner energy future, jobs could be saved, and ratepayers could be assured they will continue to get their energy at affordable costs.

It’s time for the governor and Democrats to stop playing politics by posturing to their political allies. A reasonable compromise exists, and Gov. Pritzker and Democratic legislators need to finalize clean energy legislation that benefits all parties, so legislators can return to Springfield and vote on it.

Sen. Donald DeWitte (R-33) is from St. Charles.

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