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Year in Review: The Top 5 stories in Illinois politics during 2021

Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch became Speaker of the Illinois House on January 13, 2021.
Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch became Speaker of the Illinois House on January 13, 2021.(Mike Miletich)
Published: Dec. 28, 2021 at 5:55 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WGEM) - As 2021 comes to an end, we’re looking back at the top five stories in Illinois politics. Response to the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change were two of the big areas lawmakers addressed, but other topics also saw major debates.

‘A new day’

The year started with former House Speaker Mike Madigan’s exit from the chamber he controlled for 36 years. Many plans passed through both chambers with a vision of “a new day in Springfield.”

Jan. 13, 2021 was a historic day for Illinois. The longest-serving House Speaker in US history fell from power and Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch became the first Black Speaker in Illinois history.

Welch said the Speaker’s office would be open and accessible and that he would work with others to solve the state’s issues. While many argued Welch wouldn’t be able to separate himself from Madigan’s influence, the Hillside Democrat said he could distinguish himself.

“People may doubt what you say, Mike. But, they believe what you do,” Welch said. “You’re going to hear me say that a lot.”

Welch helped get many proposals across the finish line in 2021, including a massive deal to move Illinois toward 100% clean energy by 2050. The new law saved nuclear energy facilities with a $694 million bailout for Exelon and put an emphasis on equity for clean energy jobs in the future.

‘Clean energy future’

Private coal and oil plants must reach zero carbon emissions by 2030. Meanwhile, larger municipal coal plants must close by 2045 unless they reach zero emissions before that point.

“This new law is the most significant step Illinois has taken in a generation toward a reliable, renewable, affordable, and clean energy future,” said Gov. JB Pritzker.

Affordable housing

State lawmakers also passed a plan to create an affordable housing program using funds from the federal American Rescue Plan. The Illinois Housing Development Authority received $75 million in federal funding to improve buildings qualifying for low-income housing credits and develop new properties.

This plan also extended the Illinois affordable housing tax credit through the next five years to encourage real estate and monetary donations for future homes.

“The answer to unhoused people is housing,” said Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago). “It’s not complicated. If we have unhoused people, let’s build them housing and put them in homes.”

Health Care Right of Conscience Act

Democratic leaders also amended the Health Care Right of Conscience Act to allow employers to enforce COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements. Many had used the 1977 law in legal arguments as an excuse to get out of COVID-19 mitigations at work.

The clarification of this law says employers won’t violate the Act if they enforce health care requirements intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, people still have rights protected under federal law.

“It is not a mandate,” said Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-Evanston). “We are not mandating anything. We are not requiring anyone to do anything new.”

The legislation takes effect on June 1, 2022. Although, many people can assume the clarification can be used to squash ongoing legal battles against COVID-19 mandates.

“You can let an employer or any person employed by any unit of government in the state of Illinois force a person to do things, even things your doctor thinks are medically contraindicated, wrong or harmful. Tonight, your yes vote means you denied them a remedial claim,” Rep. Deanne Mazzochi said. “They get nothing in a court of law. That is contrary to the legislative intent of our Right of Conscience Act.”

Parental notification

Democrats also repealed the 1995 Parental Notification of Abortion Act. Minors in Illinois are no longer required to tell their parents or guardians before having an abortion. Still, Republicans argue the repeal was another attack on parental rights.

“Voting for this is failing girls,” said Rep. Avery Bourne (R-Morrisonville). “And it’s failing good parents.”

Supporters say young people should be trusted to make their own decisions about reproductive health. They also say some end up in dangerous situations if they tell their parents. Girls who do not have a good relationship with their parents or guardians currently go before a judge to ask for approval through a judicial bypass.

“We trust women in Illinois. We support the most vulnerable in our state,” said Rep. Anna Moeller (D-Elgin). “This law is dangerous. It’s harmful. It’s harming young people in the state.”

The plan creates a new working group to help review legislation that impacts pregnant minors. That group could also help young girls who may become pregnant.

Later this week

Obviously, a lot happened this year and we’re not done recapping the legislative action. The Capitol Bureau will break down some of the laws taking effect in 2022 later this week.

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