SPRINGIFELD — Even while touting the flurry of legislative achievements he helped shepherd through his chamber in 2021, House Speaker Chris Welch said he is "well aware" of the challenges facing Democrats in 2022.
"We’re well aware of the atmosphere that we enter the election season in," Welch told Lee Enterprises in a wide-ranging interview Tuesday morning. "And we know that we have to do the work. Winners do the work."
This year, the work will include more hitting the pavement as the majority party seeks to defend its record in an election year. Welch confirmed there will be less policymaking and more politicking as lawmakers seek to wrap up session by April, well ahead of the June 28 primary.
"The first year of a (General Assembly) is a lot busier typically than the second year, just in general," Welch said. "And we have a shortened session, we’re going to be done by April."
"And we got a lot done in the first year," he continued. "I mean, we came back in August and September and October and we got substantive things done each of those times we came back. So it felt like the session that never would end. But it all led to such a an amazingly productive 2021."
"I feel great. I love the job," Welch said. "I love having the ability to wake up every day and help someone out. We have an ability to change someone’s life for the better and that’s what we try to do each and every day."
Last week, lawmakers returned to Springfield for a one-day session — abbreviated by the rapid surge in COVID-19 cases.
Session days scheduled for this week were also cancelled with more cancellations likely in the coming weeks. However, lawmakers can do most of their early work in committees, which are meeting remotely.
Welch, who last year laid out an ambitious legislative agenda, was more tempered this year, saying that he has three top priorities for this session.
That spending plan helped earn the state its first credit rating upgrade in more than 20 years.
Though the amount of tax revenue lawmakers have to work with is to be determined, there is still more than $5 billion in federal COVID-19 stimulus funds left to be dispersed.
"Thankfully, we didn’t spend it all at one time and we were fiscally responsible with those dollars because we’re going to have to continue to address the ability to help people put a roof over their head by paying their rent and their mortgage, helping small businesses," Welch said. "Those things are critical."
Another priority of Welch’s will be continuing the push for diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s a point he was making early this week in meetings with the presidents of state universities and the CEO of managed care organizations (MCOs), which are private insurance companies that administer the state’s Medicaid program.
Welch said he plans to meet with all the CEOs of corporations based in Illinois in March to discuss the effort.
Before he was speaker, Welch was behind an effort to mandate that every corporation in the state have at least one African-American and one woman on its board of directors.
Those provisions were eventually stripped from the legislation and replaced with a requirement that companies make public disclosures about the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of their boards. That law was signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2020.
Third and perhaps most pressing, Welch said there will be a concerted legislative effort to address the rise in crime across the state, especially as it pertains to carjacking offenses and retail theft.
"The conversations are being had — it’s early on right now," Welch said. "But I anticipate something being done specifically on those in this particular session."
It comes as cities across the state, from Chicago to midsize cities like Champaign and Decatur, saw record levels of violence in 2021.
Illinois Republicans have made clear their intention to make crime a central issue to the 2022 election campaign. Some Democrats have also raised the alarm, both out of concern for public safety but also acknowledging where the political blame will lay if nothing is done.
The law also mandates that officers render aid to the injured, intervene when a fellow officer is using excessive force and place limits in use of force. It also offers stricter guidelines for the decertification of officers and would allow people to file anonymous complaints of police misconduct.
It was near-universally condemned by law enforcement and Republicans as "anti-police." And though most of its provisions have not yet taken effect, the GOP has said the legislation has emboldened criminals, leading to increased crime rates.
In perhaps another sign of the shifting political ground, Pritzker and other Democrats are signing onto legislation that would enhance penalties for those who harm DCFS employees. It would also grant DCFS workers the same protected status as police officers and firefighters.
Such a proposal isn’t new, but Democratic lawmakers, particularly those in the Black Caucus and progressive wing of the party, had effectively put a halt to any bills that enhance criminal penalties.
However, there is new momentum following the death of DCFS case worker Deidre Silas, who was stabbed to death while making a home visit just south of Springfield.
But now, the new effort is being carried by state Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis, a member of Welch’s leadership team.
"We want to make sure that our workers are treated fairly and they’re safe," Welch said. "And so treating them like first responders and, and making sure people know that if they commit a crime against them that they’re going to have to do some serious time, I’m certainly supportive of that in concept."
However, Welch cautioned that "it’s early on, and we want to make sure that that piece of legislation works his way through the process and I think we need to make sure we’ve heard from all the voices around the table."
Despite these new efforts to address crime, Welch said he was happy to defend his party’s record over the past year, from the criminal justice bill to ongoing initiatives meant to address the root causes of crime.
Among those: the "Reimagine Public Safety Act," legislation that will direct $250 million over the next three years towards community-based violence prevention initiatives. No House Republicans voted for the legislation.
"I think Republicans in Illinois need to be careful, because their voting record is clear," Welch said. "Things that we have done to support people that will help reduce crime, particularly when it comes to the root causes of crime, they voted no on all of these things and we’re gonna point that out to the voters."
Heading into an election season, Welch said he "will be heavily involved in all House races." It will be first cycle Madigan has not led House Democrats since 1980.
"My job is to make sure that incumbents are reelected and new members are elected and seats where there’s opportunity," Welch said. "We’re going to work hard. I do believe that Democrats will move the state forward and Republicans will set the state back."
Though saying he’s more focused on what Democrats do in the legislature and defending them at the ballot box, Welch offered his thoughts on Republican efforts, likely to be funded by billionaire Ken Griffin, to put forward a slate of statewide candidates in the coming election.
"Certainly, if Ken Griffin is backing a slate, we will point out to the voters that Ken Griffin was the reason we had Bruce Rauner," Welch said. "And Bruce Rauner, his four years were very destructive to state government. And so we will be watching that very closely and we will make sure that voters know where everyone stands."
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January 11, 2022 at 08:46PM