The Illinois General Assembly is reconvening for an emergency session in Springfield next week just as Cook County becomes the new COVID-19 epicenter, surpassing Queens, NY for the most cases in the nation.
It is a particularly grim moment—but as the cases mount, leaders are faced with significant choices about how the state will weather the storm, and what Illinois will look like when the pandemic eventually passes.
For months, NRDC has been deeply engaged at the federal level in advocating for public health protections during the outbreak and a recovery that replaces business as usual with something better. And with this special session, we will be advocating for the same outcomes at the state level. Leaders in the General Assembly have laid out a limited agenda focusing on the COVID stimulus implementation, the state budget, a hospital assessment program, and Constitutional Amendments. But the choices they make will have far-reaching impacts.
Already in Illinois, our activists have sent Governor Pritzker thousands of messages lauding his moratorium on utility cutoffs, while seeking water service reconnections, emergency water supplies, and enhanced support for communities facing flooding and sewage issues to safeguard public health during and after the stay at home order. We’ve called on the Governor to address housing and utility issues, as well as stepping into the breach to enforce clean air and water protections, since the Trump Administration has decided to step back from that responsibility. We will be watching those issues, but also expect to be weighing in on the desperate need for a short-term funding solution for renewable energy in the state, support for ailing coal communities and distribution of stimulus funds for essential public health and financial protections.
Illinois budget situation has the potential to further complicate the COVID recovery picture. Facing a potential $7 billion shortfall, state agencies could be facing across the board 33% cuts. In the midst of a pandemic, slashing the agencies working at the front lines of protecting public health will not help speed the recovery. In this moment, the General Assembly must protect the resources of agencies that safeguard public health—and that includes the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
Cutting a third of the already-decimated agency would be disastrous in this moment when the Trump Administration has signaled that they will not be enforcing the basic clean air and water protections that we all rely upon. According to a preliminary NRDC analysis, many communities enduring chronic exposure to dangerous sources of air pollution are also suffering disproportionately high death rates from COVID-19. Add to that the startling Harvard study last month showing that COVID-19 mortality rates are higher in counties with elevated levels of long-term fine particle air pollution. Given that, stripping resources from the men and women who protect clean air and water during this pandemic is a recipe for disaster. Yes, the deficit numbers are frightening and right now, lots of us are hurting—but just think how much more we will all be hurting if we fire the watchdogs charged to protect us from public health threats like toxic runoff into Lake Michigan, coal waste running into downstate rivers, or neurotoxic dust floating around the Southeast Side of Chicago compounding the pandemic.
It all looks dire right now. But equitable, forward-thinking policies could position us to come out of lockdown—not to business as usual—but to something better. In Illinois, that starts in this special session, even as the pandemic rages on. Better days are ahead, especially if lawmakers make smart decisions now to save lives, protect public health, and set the table for the healthy, sustainable, future that most people want.