January 31, 2009

Quinn Can Lead to a Cleaner Future

IIllinois Governor Pat Quinn takes office with more knowledge and experience dealing with the energy, environmental, and conservation challenges facing our state than any new governor in Illinois history. As Lieutenant Governor, he pushed the boundaries of his job description to become Illinois' most visible environmental advocate, championing major upgrades to the policies protecting our drinking water, our public lands, our energy policies, and many more.

As Quinn said after taking the oath of office, "I'm an organizer. Early to bed, early to rise, organize, organize, organize". This inclination to action has attracted him to many good fights on behalf of the people versus the powerful. By lending the power of his office, his good name, and his knack for attracting public attention to causes that might otherwise go unnoticed, he has made a critical difference in many campaigns for a cleaner and greener Illinois. When developers wanted to cash in by building condos on prime bald eagle habitat on an island in the Illinois River, Quinn led an effort to save Plum Island, and it is now forever protected. He sided with Sierra Club and local officials against Gov. Blagojevich's IDNR to stop a coal mine in an Illinois River wetland connected to Banner Marsh, a major state wildlife area. He championed homeowners in DuPage County who were not notified that their drinking water was contaminated by leaking toxic waste, and worked to change our laws to require notification and give Illinois EPA more authority to crack down on polluters.

Now Quinn takes over the Governor's office in the midst of simultaneous crises of corruption, fiscal collapse, and a shrinking economy. He could be forgiven for momentarily forgetting his populist roots as he suddenly inherits such immense problems and responsibility, but his first hours indicated, if anything, a renewed commitment to change. In his first evening as Governor, Quinn spoke to the need for a major new capital spending program to have sustainability as a fundamental principle, including smart, clean energy as a priority. He said he would reopen closed state parks, and would appoint a natural resource professional to run the troubled Department of Natural Resources.

The problems he faces are big, and the competition for his attention will be intense, but Quinn can get off to a fast start making Illinois a leader in the new green economy. While corruption has dominated the headlines, environmental advocates have made big changes in recent years. New energy laws will require 25% of Illinois' electricity to come from wind and other renewable sources by 2025, and Ameren and ComEd are beginning major new programs to help homeowners and businesses save energy this year. We are moving to protect our rivers and lakes from phosphorus pollution from sewage plants and lawn runoff, and this year Illinois coal plants will install cutting edge technology to eliminate 90% of mercury pollution from their smokestacks.

However, big questions about our future face Quinn, the new General Assembly, and all of us. Will Illinois help Obama lead the country and the world to global warming solutions by becoming a clean car state, and setting state limits on greenhouse gas emissions? Will we focus new federal and state capital investments on transportation and energy projects that put people to work giving us cleaner air and healthier communities? Can we protect Illinois' remaining wetlands, prairies, and forests for future generations? How will we make sure a growing population and economy has access to clean, safe drinking water? How can we rebuild the Illinois DNR in the midst of a state fiscal crisis?

Fortunately, Quinn will have a lot of allies in tackling these questions. Changes in the Senate leadership have put John Cullerton and Christine Radogno, both longtime environmental champions, in charge of the Democratic and Republican caucuses, respectively. In the House, the 2008 elections were bad news for some who resisted change, and good news for a new class of leaders who have clean energy high on their list of priorities. In both the House and Senate, Quinn will find new allies for change, even among longtime veterans who will now see the writing on the wall. He can work with Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who has been a vigilant enforcer of our environmental laws, and who helped stem the Bush Administration's attacks on our environmental laws with regular legal challenges. State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias has come up with creative ways to put the power of the state's purse to work protecting the planet. Old divides between interest groups are melting, and new alliances forming, as the very broad appeal of change becomes clear. Businesses see the imperative of energy efficiency in cutting costs. Organized labor recognizes the tremendous employment potential of smart energy solutions. Hunters and anglers are teaming with birders and hikers to demand effective protection of Illinois' outdoors. Faith congregations recognize solving the climate crisis as a moral imperative. Mayors and other local government officials, from Waukegan to Chicago to Rock Island to Carbondale, have made commitments to reduce greenhouse gases locally and are poised to help craft state solutions.

Many members of Illinois' political establishment have, in the past, snickered at Quinn. Constantly picking the people over the powerful has not exactly been the golden rule of Illinois politics. But now, change is not just in vogue, it is in demand. The people of Illinois demand clean government, and they are beyond hungry for leadership they can trust to deliver a smart energy future, and to be a good steward of our air, water, and natural resources. Pat Quinn has what it takes to be that leader, but he will need help. The General Assembly must also embrace change, and each of us must hold all of our elected officials to a new, higher standard. Let's change Illinois from the capitol of "pay to play" to a laboratory of fresh, new ideas that will revitalize our economy, give us a all a cleaner, healthier place to live, and give America real examples of the change we need.

January 26, 2009

Obama Clean Car Push Clears Way for Illinois Clean Car Act

President Obama's action today to direct USEPA to consider allowing stricter state automobile emissions standards is the change we need to save money at the gas pump, retool our auto industry to make better, more efficient cars, and cut air pollution.

Last year the Illinois General Assembly debated the Illinois Clean Car Act, sponsored by State Rep. Karen May (D-Highland Park) and State Sen. Terry Link (D-Waukegan), but opposition to stronger state standards from the Bush Administration was a roadblock to the gas savings and cleaner air the Act would bring to Illinois.

President Obama made clear today that his administration will work with states like Illinois that want cleaner cars, not against them. The General Assembly should seize this opportunity to join the growing number of clean car states, and embrace President Obama's vision of cleaner cars the help us end our dependence on foreign oil.

You can read the President's remarks here.