Illinois State building

The spring session of the General Assembly, like everything else during the coronavirus pandemic, was different than usual.

Still, agriculture fared fairly well, said the head of the senate agriculture committee, Sen. Scott Bennett (D-Champaign).

Funding was maintained for the Department of Agriculture, including funding for 4-H and county fairs. The budget also includes $5 million passed through funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security (CARES) Act for livestock producers to recoup losses caused by the pandemic’s disruptions.

“In the shortened session, agriculture did well,” Bennett said.

The session started May 20 with an extension to May 23 with a specific focus on issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic and passing a budget.

Both those main topics were addressed by the time the House adjourned May 24 at 1 a.m., but many other issues were not addressed this session, said Kevin Semlow, director of state legislation for the Illinois Farm Bureau. The budget was passed but remains unbalanced with uncertain Illinois revenue, he said.

One area that the Illinois Farm Bureau was unsuccessful in this session was its request that Gov. J.B. Pritzker withdraw a constitutional amendment question on the November ballot to allow the change from a flat tax to a graduated tax, Semlow said.

“Our organization favors the flat tax,” he said.

Also on election issues, Semlow said he was glad to see the legislature approved mail-in absentee ballots for the November 2020 election. He said legislators “wisely” decided against mailing out the real ballots.

Different atmosphere

“It was a pretty strange,” Bennett said of the atmosphere at the General Assembly during the pandemic.

Usually the Capitol is full of energy with people around. The House met at the Bank of Springfield conference center nearby. In the larger space, members were able to be social distanced and all still be present for voting. A few members didn’t attend for health reasons, Semlow said.

Senators met at their usual chambers in the Capitol building, but for spacing stayed in their offices and watched the proceedings live, returning the floor in small groups to vote. Media and others watched in small viewing rooms. Other staff continued to work from home.

Positives for agriculture

As the chair of the ag committee, Bennett said he was very happy to see the funding remain the same for fiscal year 2021 for fairs and 4.H.

“County fairs are so much about the next generation,” he said. “It is vital.”

Bennett was also pleased to see money allocated to mental health and support services to farmers, in a program modeled after the Ag Resource Center, which started in the farm crisis the 1980s and ran until 2002. Bennett said a new hotline will be introduced this summer.

The ag committee chair said he has been pleased with the support he has received from Illinois’ new director of agriculture, Jerry Costello. In the last two days of voting, Bennett and the ag director were on the phone every two hours, he said.

The ag committee also worked closely with the associations representing farmers, especially livestock and specifically the Illinois Pork Producers Association representing pig farmers impacted by the supply chain disruptions, said Bennett.

“People didn’t give up, they kept on finding a way to help,” he said, noting that estimates of pigs that would have to be euthanized went down from the gut-wrenching numbers originally forecast.

On the crop front, renewable fuels is an issue that the IFB continues to follow, Semlow said. Since 40% of the corn produced in Illinois goes to the ethanol market, issues related to ethanol greatly impact crop farmers. IFB is paying particular attention to developments of the related Clean Jobs Act, which impacts renewable energy.

Other year-round efforts to connect legislators with agriculture continue. The Illinois Farm Bureau’s Adopt-a-Legislator program continues connecting urban legislators with farmers as it has for 15 years. Those visits have been virtual this spring. but plans are for in-person visits with smaller groups this fall, said Semlow.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.