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Column

SPRINGFIELD SPOTLIGHT: Unions flexing muscles in Springfield

Organized labor moves meter on data center bill

Rich Miller
Rich Miller

If you want to see how times have changed this legislative session, take a quick look at Senate Bill 1591.

The Illinois and Chicagoland chambers of commerce have been pushing legislation all session to offer state incentives to data centers. A data center basically stores massive amounts of electronic information. Illinois has been a national leader for data center locations because the Chicago region is a national Internet hub, connecting the country’s east and west, and has a reliable and plentiful electricity supply. Only two states, Virginia and Texas, have more data centers.

While companies have continued building new data centers in and around Chicago at an aggressive pace, they started having trouble filling them last year because other states have been so aggressively recruiting the facilities. Apple, one of the richest corporations in the world, snagged a $208 million tax break to build a $1.3 billion facility in Iowa.

So, the chambers and others decided to propose incentives to protect what Illinois already has and spur some new growth. SB1591 provides exemptions from and credits for a host of state and local sales and use taxes to lower costs for building and running large data centers (including the massive amounts of electricity they use) with at least $250 million in capital investment and 20 full-time employees.  

The measure was not gaining a lot of traction and then proponents asked the construction unions to chat. The unions listened and suggested some changes to make the bill more labor -friendly. 

The unions recommended an amendment containing “responsible bidder” requirements, which assure that the contractors meet certain levels of qualifications (and that usually means unionized workers). The provision was added, as were Project Labor Agreements, which require building contractors to enter into labor agreements before commencing work. An income tax credit was also added for projects in areas hit hard by poverty and unemployment.

All of a sudden, the bill took off. Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady, who has been looking for union support ever since anti-union Gov. Bruce Rauner was defeated, even signed on as a co-sponsor. The bill sailed out of the Senate on a unanimous roll call. 

This development would have been unheard of during the past 4 years. It’s not that Gov. Rauner was totally averse to subsidies, but he was staunchly opposed to things like responsible bidder requirements and PLAs. And Brady wouldn’t have dared to cross Rauner by signing onto a bill like that because Rauner never would’ve forgotten it. 

One of the best ways to get a bill rolling this year is to invite organized labor into the mix. Not only can it help pass a bill because both Democratic legislative leaders are trying to do whatever they can for unions after 4 years of Rauner’s attempts to destroy them, the support can also help convince Gov. J.B. Pritzker to sign it into law. This data center bill is just one example of many. At last check, people pushing a bill to regulate coal ash were trying to figure a way to bring the unions in to counter the industry’s pushback.

This is a big reason why securing labor’s endorsement of the cannabis legalization bill is deemed so crucial by some, even if some proponents were initially resistant. 

If you look at Rep. Marty Moylan’s, D-Des Plaines, House resolution urging the General Assembly to slow down the legalization process, you’ll see a bunch of pro-union Democrats are co-sponsors, including Reps. Natalie Manley, Monica Bristow, Bob Rita, Katie Stuart and Fran Hurley, to name just a few. Not to mention that Moylan himself has been consistently endorsed by labor over the years.

Make this bill a union priority and you attract votes, or at least you make it more difficult for pro-union legislators to oppose it. 

There is one big downside. African-American and Latino legislators have been battling with the predominantly white trade unions for years to integrate their memberships. There’s a reason why that income tax credit for impoverished areas had to be added to the data center bill when labor signed on. And the unions’ entry into the cannabis legalization movement was not exactly met with joy. 

However, some very wealthy companies are descending upon Illinois to get a piece of the legalization pie and a good argument can be made that this state needs to make extra sure it doesn’t hand out licenses to print money to employers who pay their workers a pittance and only offer folks part-time jobs without benefits. 

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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