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Illinois lawmakers are returning to Springfield. Here's what we're watching.

Capitol building in Springfield
Capitol News Illinois
Illinois Capitol in Springfield

The legislature’s spring session gets underway on Jan. 16, but the upcoming election could play a role in what gets done and when.

Illinois lawmakers will be picking up where they left off on Tuesday.

The Democrat-led legislature marked some wins last session, including a “ban on book bans” and an end to the state’s moratorium on construction of nuclear reactors. But there were more than 7,000 pieces of legislation introduced in the House and Senate last year. Most of them didn’t make any headway, but any of them could still move forward this year.

When action will happen is a different question. It’s an election year, so don’t expect much for a couple of months.“Historically, the spring session in an election year is basically a budget session with a very light agenda for substantive bills,” said Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. “The overall goal pre-primary is to do as little as possible as quickly as possible so they can go back to their districts and campaign and raise money.”

Here’s what we’re keeping an eye on in the months ahead:

Merging Chicago area transit agencies

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning wants to merge Metra, Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority into one regional agency as part of an attempt to close a $730 million budget deficit. The CMAP board is also asking lawmakers to sign off on a plan that would expand the state’s sales tax to better fund transit. Supporters of the move say the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with chronic underfunding have pushed the systems to a “critical inflection point.”

Chicago Public Schools’s elected school board

The CPS Board of Education will be chosen by voters, rather than appointed by the mayor, in January 2025. But it’s still unclear how the board and districts will be structured. State lawmakers must decide whether half the board will be elected in 2025 and half in 2027, or whether they’ll all be elected next year. The other question is whether sub districts should reflect the racial population of the school district or the city at large.

Invest in Kids

The tax credit program designed to help lower income students attend private schools expired at the end of 2023. The $75 million program allowed people to donate to a scholarship granting organization in exchange for state tax credits. The SGOs then distributed the money. A compromise measure floated last fall offered a smaller $50 million initiative, but it didn’t go anywhere. Lawmakers said they’ll try to revive the program this spring.

Karina’s Bill

Karina Gonzalez of Chicago was shot and killed in July 2023 by her husband, against whom she had an order of protection. But he still lived in their shared home and had access to his guns. This legislation would require Illinois State Police to revoke firearms from the home when an abuse victim is granted an order of protection. It passed the House in May and is awaiting Senate action.

Cannabis legislation

Plans for a wide ranging “cannabis omnibus” bill fizzled in the final days of 2023’s spring session, but cannabis advocates in the legislature are still pushing forward. Matters such as the amount of space craft growers can use to grow products, and whether dispensaries can have drive-thrus, could resurface this spring.

Offshore Wind Energy

State Rep. Marcus Evans (D-Chicago) and State Sen. Robert Peters (D-Chicago) are promoting a plan to put wind turbines to Lake Michigan. The goal with the “Rust Belt to Green Belt” fund is to eventually build a 150 megawatt wind turbine project somewhere off the Illinois shores of Lake Michigan. It passed the House by a comfortable margin and is awaiting action in the Senate.

Constitutional abortion protections

Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, residents of red states are coming to Illinois seeking abortion care. The decision removed the federal protections surrounding abortion and left it to the states. Illinois has strong protections in place and they were bolstered early in 2023 when Gov. JB Pritzker signed legislation protecting out-of-state patients seeking care in Illinois. But state laws could change if Republicans regain control of the Illinois legislature. That’s why members of the Dobbs working group, led by State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), will continue exploring whether abortion protections should be codified in the state constitution.

“This won’t be a unilateral decision as all parties have to be in agreement that this is the right time,” said Cassidy. “But the Dobbs working group will be reconvening as session begins to discuss this and other issues stemming from attacks on bodily autonomy across the country.”

Legislative staff unions

The Illinois House passed a measure that would let legislative staffers at the state Capitol unionize. It gives the Illinois Labor Relations Board oversight of employees of the General Assembly and sets parameters for how bargaining should take place. It’s now in the Senate, but members of the Illinois Legislative Staff Association (ILSA), who spearheaded the bill, said there’s still a lot of work to do on it.

State funding for migrant support

Lawmakers have things to consider besides legislation. As more migrants continue flowing into Chicago and now the suburbs, the need for state resources might change and the legislature could consider what’s called a supplemental budget appropriation. They do that when there’s an urgent need that can’t wait until the next budget is passed.

The House and Senate gavel in for the first time this year on Jan. 16 and they’ll only be in Springfield for part of that week. They’re back for two weeks in February and another two in March before the primary election.

They have a self-imposed adjournment deadline of May 24.

Alex Degman is a Statehouse reporter with WBEZ.