June 28, 2008

Springfield's Stalemate A Hostile Environment

In the weeks since the adjournment, at least temporarily, of the General Assembly's spring session, I have been thinking a lot about how the dysfunction under the dome has dragged down the environmental agenda.

In recent years Illinois' environmental community has had an impressive run of big legislative victories on some the major policy questions of our time. In 2007, the electric rate relief package included some of the strongest clean energy provisions of any state - 25% of household electricity will come from wind in the future as a result, and ComEd and Ameren are busy getting ready to roll out major new energy conservation programs as a result. We've required a 90% reduction in mercury from our coal plants, and banned mercury in car parts, thermometers, and other products. We got nearly all of the phosphorus, which causes nasty algae blooms in our rivers and lakes, out of dishwashing detergent. Illinois ratified the Great Lakes Compact, to protect Lake Michigan from being drained by thirsts outside the region. We passed the nation's first Cool Cities Act, to give state support to mayors fighting climate change at the local level. We have new champions in all four caucuses of the General Assembly, and are more active than ever in electing new leaders across the state.

Given all this, we set our sights high for 2008, and launched ambitious campaigns to fight global warming, protect open space, and clean up toxics. As the dust settles on this Spring's legislative session, none of these initiatives crossed the finish line, despite heroic efforts by many. What happened?

Clearly, while the green engine inside the Capitol is building steam, the wheels have fallen off the rest of the train, and no amount of strength or smarts by advocates or individual legislators was enough to pull some very bright ideas through some very dark, deep tunnels.

State Representative Karen May (D-Highland Park) and a hardy band of champions are leading the drive to make Illinois the 15th Clean Car State by requiring cleaner versions of the cars we now drive that would reduce asthma attacks and save Illinois over $1 billion every year at the pump because they use a lot less gas. Who wouldn't want that? A statewide poll conducted May 22nd found that 90% of Illinoisans support the bill, and the support was strong everywhere - downstate, collar counties, and Chicago residents all want clean cars. However, the auto industry clings very tightly to their failed business strategy of refusing to make and sell the cars that more and more people want to buy. They waged a campaign of misinformation against the bill, and time ran out on the session before Rep. May could bring the bill up for a vote of the full House. A measure supported by 9 out of 10 Illinoisans will have to wait.

The passage of a state capital projects bill could potentially be a major source of funding environmental initiatives. The version of the Illinois Works proposal unveiled at the start of the session's last week contained no funding for open space protection, and was weighted towards roads rather than mass transit. By the end of the session's final week, thanks to hard work by House Republicans like Leader Tom Cross and Rep. Beth Coulson, and by House Democrats Julie Hamos, Elaine Nekritz, and Karen May, the plan was amended to include $200 million in open space funding - substantially less than needed over the life of the plan, but it was a start. After the package cleared the Senate, it died in the Illinois House as key funding mechanisms for the package were rejected.

State Senator Susan Garrett (D-Lake Forest) has worked for two years to come up with a plan to require recycling of computers and electronic waste in Illinois. After countless hours of negotiations with with computer and electronics manufacturers and advocates from the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Garrett came up with a product agreed to by most parties that passed both the Senate and the House, but failed to become law as the clock ran out before the Senate could give their approval to an amendment added in the House.

Several proposals to better protect our health from dangerous toxins got stuck in the mire. The chemical industry killed proposals to ban a few of the most dangerous toxins from some of the products we buy. A bill to require labeling of baby toys that contain brain-damaging lead failed, as did an effort to take mercury out of cosmetic products. While Illinoisans are embracing ways to detox their homes, Springfield resists them, even after Environment Illinois brought a toxics detection tool to the Capitol one day to show legislators just how widespread these unnecessary toxins are - right in their offices. Maybe that explains a few things?

So we have some very bright, hard-working champions in office, dedicated advocates both in the Capitol and in the districts raising these issues with their legislators, and an agenda with broad, growing public support. Unfortunately, that wasn't enough in this difficult year. So what's an advocate to do now?

This November's election is going to be about change, and we have a chance to harness that attention and energy from the electorate to break the Springfield logjam by electing more environmental champions to join the strong core who are already there putting the public's interest first. We need to help our friends who work so hard under such difficult circumstances, and bring in reinforcements next year to make the bipartisan team of environmental leaders strong enough to succeed in spite of whatever political battles lay ahead. Then we can get back to the business of making Illinois a model for America to follow.