Welch reflects on first year as Illinois House Speaker, goals for spring session
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WGEM) - Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch will celebrate one year as the chamber’s leader on Thursday. He hopes people look back at 2021 as a historic year for Illinois lawmakers, not just because he became the first Black Speaker in the state’s history, but due to the policies made into law.
He said a clean energy plan, expansion of voting rights, investments in public safety and protections for women’s reproductive health were monumental.
“I can’t think of anything we left on the cutting room floor,” Welch said. “What we didn’t get done in May, we certainly got done in August, September and October. It felt like the session that would never end.”
Welch noted Democrats and Republicans were able to collaborate on important legislation, but he understands he can’t make everyone happy. Still, Welch believes it is a “new day in Springfield” with a welcoming environment for bipartisanship.
“When you’re open and accessible, they want to come in and talk,” Welch said. “It’s important to listen to them. So I think what’s changed the environment is that if you talk to rank and file members on both sides of the aisle, they will tell you that they feel heard.”
The Hillside Democrat said lawmakers should continue to work on a path toward financial stability, help people keep a roof over their heads and provide lifelines for businesses struggling during the pandemic. Welch would also like to see the House address the rise in crime with more investments included in the state budget and new policies to curb carjacking and organized retail theft.
Both chambers are starting the first month of session with most of their work done remotely due to the resurgence of COVID-19. However, Welch says that won’t prevent lawmakers from getting important work done this spring.
“Our number one goal is to keep everyone as safe as possible,” Welch said. “We proved last year that we can do the legislative work in a hybrid model. It just turns out that with this surge of COVID-19, we’re going back to doing our committee work virtually. If we were in Springfield in person, all we would be doing is going from committee room to committee room having meetings.”
Welch hopes to see the House and Senate return to Springfield once the number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations start to decrease and move in a better direction.
While lawmakers may not pass massive reforms during the second year of the 102nd General Assembly, there could still be intense debate over several topics. The response to COVID-19 and violence already caused a partisan divide for lawmakers and the public. Welch says leaders need to lower the rhetoric and set an example for others.
“I have consistently tried to be the adult in the room, a calming voice, and not engage in hyperbole because that’s extremely important,” Welch said. “We’re dealing with some tough topics on a whole lot of fronts, and I think it’s important as leaders that we set the tone.”
The Speaker is also meeting with long-term care facility owners to discuss the right way to move forward with a patient-driven payment model. Welch also wants lawmakers to check in on universities, managed care organizations, and major corporations in Illinois to make sure they have followed state guidelines for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Budget negotiators always go through a list of priorities to figure out the best ways to divide funds in the budget. Those lawmakers still have a leg up at the moment with Illinois in much better financial standing than previous years.
But many Republicans argue the state’s current financial picture is skewed by federal funds Illinois received through the American Rescue Plan. Welch said most GOP members voted against using ARPA funding in the current budget but then went home to their districts and celebrated financial success.
“We’re seeing an increase in revenue in our General Revenue fund because of things that we’ve been putting in place the last couple of years. Certainly, the federal dollars are helping us address a global health pandemic,” Welch said. “But, there’s been some things put in place that have helped increase revenues across the board. We’re starting to see the positive results of that with credit upgrades and financial stability.”
Both chambers have a shortened session schedule this year. Welch and Senate President Don Harmon hope to end session on April 9 to allow members to focus on campaigning before the June 28 primary election.
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