Illinois legislators are returning to Springfield Friday for the first time since May, facing an unprecedented campaign for Illinois House Speaker and an ambitious call for criminal justice and education reforms from the legislative Black Caucus.
Leaders canceled the majority of the legislative session days in 2020 due to high COVID-19 cases in the state. They’re now returning to the Capitol with protocols in place to allow for social distancing and with added security, just days before the winners of November’s election are sworn in and the start of a new General Assembly.
The violent insurrection this week at the Capitol prompted Gov. JB Pritzker to call for additional state police officers to monitor the state capitol and the Bank of Springfield Center, where the House of Representatives will be meeting.
“The ISP will ensure the safety and security of those who are tasked with carrying out the important process of democracy,” a spokesman for the Illinois State Police said in a statement. “The ISP will have all resources at its disposal to assure the safety of the participants and protect the integrity of the session.”
Such “lame duck sessions” are used for taking highly sensitive or unpopular votes. Outgoing lawmakers have nothing to lose, and newly-elected ones won’t face voters again for at least two years.
Democrats have said they don’t plan to call for an income tax hike despite the state’s budget deficit and the failure of the recent graduated income tax plan. A decade ago, the legislature used the lame duck session to increase the state’s flat income tax rate.
But the next few days will be telling as to whether Illinois House Speaker and state Democratic Party Chair Michael Madigan will be able to build on his already recording-setting run as longest-serving speaker of any chamber in the country’s history — or whether there will be a dragged-out campaign for the title.
The new class of legislators — including the representatives who will vote for speaker— will be sworn in at noon on Wednesday. But that historic vote could tint the few days that lame-duck lawmakers have to get any work done before then.
Democratic State Reps. Ann Williams from Chicago, Kathleen Willis from Addison and Stephanie Kifowit from Oswego are challenging Madigan for House Speaker. That’s after Commonwealth Edison admitted it embarked on a years-long effort to bribe Madigan by offering jobs, contracts, internships and even a board appointment in exchange for favorable legislation.
In addition, prosecutors charged Michael McClain, Madigan’s longtime confidant and advisor, in the scheme. McClain has pleaded not guilty.
Madigan faces no criminal charges and denies wrongdoing.
But the scandal has nevertheless forced Madigan into a situation he hasn’t faced in decades of power: He must now campaign for his fellow Democrats’ support to remain House speaker.
Nineteen Democratic House members have said they will not support Madigan for speaker, leaving the incumbent short of the 60 needed votes.
Some Democrats have expressed concerns that a knock-down, drag-out fight for speaker could stall or overshadow legislative action.
“This is politics. We’re in the game of politics and because of that, everything matters,” Rep. Kam Buckner, D-Chicago, said.
Buckner was recently elected chairman of the legislative Black Caucus, a group that endorsed Madigan to retain his speakership. The caucus has been working for months on a legislative overhaul of policing, education, health care and economy — motivated by the public outcry over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“I would hope that whatever the speaker fight looks like that it doesn’t last for a very long time because if that’s the case then we are putting on hold the work of the people,” Buckner told WBEZ. “I’m welcoming for us to get through this speaker’s race without too much angst because we’ve gotta get back to work.”
Recently-filed legislation reveals the details of just how ambitious their agenda is.
A 611-page criminal justice omnibus bill would impose several major changes: eliminating the use of cash bail; letting local governments take police discipline out of their contracts with unions; financially penalizing local governments that don’t use police body cameras; further restricting police chokeholds; forbidding sheriffs from buying certain military equipment, like grenade launchers tracked armored vehicles, and camouflage uniforms; and allowing the public to remain anonymous when filing a complaint against an officer.
Meanwhile, a separate education omnibus bill calls for the creation of “anti-racism initiatives” specifically meant to improve the education performance of African American students. Those could include reducing class sizes for young students and implementing “culturally appropriate curriculum and associated professional development.”
The bill also expands the state’s tax credit scholarship program to help pay for low-income children to attend private school and lengthens the school year by 15 days.
There is also legislation called the “Economic Equity Act” that would give descendants of Africans enslaved in the U.S. a leg up in being awarded government contracts, among other things.
“We are cognizant of the fact that the clock is ticking,” Buckner said, acknowledging that the caucus may not be able to pass all of its legislation in just the five days before inauguration. “These are things we tried to pass for a very long time. We have to have complete conversations, but I also don’t think that it should take forever to get this stuff done.”
The recently-released legislation concerning the Black Caucus’ criminal justice proposal was greeted with immediate pushback from a coalition of law enforcement groups, including Chicago’s FOP, the Illinois FOP Labor Council, the Illinois Sheriff’s Association, the Illinois Association Chiefs of Police and the Illinois FOP State Lodge.
“The so-called ‘reforms’ that are part of House Bill 163 as amended would destroy law enforcement’s ability to keep communities safe,” the statement reads. “The authors of this legislation are not law enforcement professionals with hundreds of years of combined experience and this bill was drafted without law enforcement input, and because of that the long-term unintended consequences of this legislation would be dire.”
That statement prompted a rebuke from the entire Senate Black Caucus, who criticized law enforcement’s statement as adding “fuel to the fire” given the attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.
“From our perspective, our communities know what they need in order to be kept safe,” the statement said. “We come from the communities we represent. Our experiences, combined with our understanding of policy, have shaped our legislative approach, and they cannot be dismissed when it comes to determining what our communities need.
“We as a caucus want to work with everyone to pass an agenda rooted in declaring that Black lives matter and ensuring that everyone in this state can be made whole.”
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.