Illinois Lawmakers Schedule A Pandemic Session As COVID-19 Deaths Set A New Record

As lawmakers plan a return to Springfield next week, Gov. JB Pritzker warns of “severe” budget cuts ahead without more federal relief .

COVID-19 Official Updates Pritzker V2
AP/WBEZ
COVID-19 Official Updates Pritzker V2
AP/WBEZ

Illinois Lawmakers Schedule A Pandemic Session As COVID-19 Deaths Set A New Record

As lawmakers plan a return to Springfield next week, Gov. JB Pritzker warns of “severe” budget cuts ahead without more federal relief .

On Illinois’ deadliest day of the pandemic, state lawmakers Wednesday agreed to meet next week to act on a state budget, a COVID-19 emergency relief package and other items as Gov. JB Pritzker warned of “severe, damaging cuts” to education and other state services without another federal bailout.

After Pritzker called on the Democratic-led legislature to reconvene, House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, made good on the demand by agreeing to schedule a three-day special legislative session beginning next Wednesday.

Madigan said the abbreviated session would enable lawmakers to “conduct the critical work of state government in this unprecedented pandemic,” including passing a budget before the start of the new state fiscal year in July and pandemic-relief measures.

Madigan and Harmon jointly signed the proclamation calling lawmakers back to Springfield. But their proclamation included several other areas for potential action without obvious links to the pandemic — including constitutional amendments, election-related measures and state laws set to expire in 2021 without further action.

While the Senate will gather in the state Capitol, the House intends to convene at the Bank of Springfield Center, a cavernous civic center a few blocks from the state Capitol where gubernatorial inaugurations, concerts and trade shows take place. The larger space will allow for proper social-distancing among lawmakers who number 118 in the House.

In a letter to House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, Madigan laid out a series of public-health guidelines that all House members will have to adhere to during the special legislative session, including wearing facial coverings and having their temperatures checked upon entering the civic center. The speaker said the House is nowhere close to returning to a “semblance of normalcy” in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A pandemic is not swayed by our speeches, by our desire for normalcy or by political expediency,” Madigan wrote to Durkin, who previously had called for lawmakers to reconvene.

Pritzker expressed gratitude to his Democratic legislative counterparts and renewed his call for passage of both a budget and a pandemic-relief package to target families, small businesses and small towns that didn’t reap big benefits from the most recent federal COVID-19 aid package.

Asked how a cash-strapped state with the lowest credit rating in America could pay for its own COVID-19 relief program, the governor said more funding would have to come from Washington. Without it, Pritzker predicted a fiscal and social catastrophe in Illinois.

“There’s a lot that I think we’re going to have to work on in this budget, but [vital] to this is getting support from the federal government. There’s no chance we won’t have to suffer severe, damaging cuts to higher education, to K-12 education, to basic services that people need if we don’t get any support,” the governor said. “That’s what’s going to happen to our state. We’re going to see just an enormous hole where we’ve made so much progress.”

Some top Republicans, who have criticized Pritzker’s extensive use of executive orders that have bypassed the legislature in addressing the pandemic, welcomed Wednesday’s developments — even while sounding embittered at the Democrats’ slow walk to their demands to resume legislative business.

“After two months of inaction, it is about time we get back to the job we were elected to do,” said Durkin.

Meanwhile, the pandemic showed no signs of easing up on the misery it’s inflicting on Illinois.

Pritzker’s administration announced Wednesday that 192 people died from the coronavirus during the previous 24 hours, which set a record for the most fatalities in a single day since the first person died from COVID-19 on March 17. The state’s death toll now stands at 3,792.

In other COVID-19 developments Wednesday:

  • Childhood COVID-19 illnesses: State Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike was asked about the unusual childhood inflammatory response that some researchers believe is linked to COVID-19. She said she had gotten reports of at least three cases in Illinois but acknowledged there may be more. She said she is convening a task force to look into the prevalence of the condition and issue guidance to healthcare providers on symptoms linked to the illness — moves that she said may reveal more. “I think I’ve heard three for sure that I know of. But perhaps there’s more,” she said. “I talked to many providers at different institutions throughout the state to try to get a handle. I don’t know that we’ve had as many as New York. But when we put the official guidance out and release that to our providers, we’ll be able to see what it brings forth.

  • Message to local governments wanting to reopen too fast: Pritzker used particularly harsh language on Wednesday while speaking directly to local governments around the state planning to reopen more of their economy sooner than the governor has allowed. “192 Illinoisans lost their lives to this virus in the past 24 hours. 192. How is that not real to you?” Pritzker asked. He reiterated his threat to withhold federal aid to those local governments that defy the order, and threatened to enforce his stay-at-home order through state agencies that license certain businesses. “To the elected officials out there who are playing to the crowd that ignores science and carries symbols of hate, step up and lead,” the governor said in an apparent reference to protests earlier this month that involved anti-Semitic attacks against him.

  • Willie Wilson’s call for church services rebuked: Failed Chicago mayoral candidate Willie Wilson said he is supporting the decision of 100 churches to hold Sunday service in defiance of the governor’s stay-at-home order. Pritzker, however, said Wilson’s call is “ridiculous” and suggested Wilson “do his homework.” He continued: “We’re talking about senior citizens, who as we know, are a vulnerable population. And add on top of that, African American senior citizens, most of those that he’s talking about, and they are especially vulnerable as well. The double sets of comorbidities, putting those groups of people together in large groups, is an enormous mistake.” 

  • First COVID-19 death at a state veterans home: The first coronavirus-related death at one of Illinois’ four state-run veterans’ homes has been recorded. The Manteno Veterans’ Home resident had been in hospice care for several months for other conditions, Pritzker said. At that same home, 49 residents and staff have tested positive for COVID-19. At the Anna Veterans’ Home, five residents have tested positive. One resident at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home tested positive. No cases have been confirmed at the veterans’ home in Quincy.

  • Apology to Major League Baseball players: Pritzker apologized to MLB players after saying Tuesday that fans “deserve to get their past time back” and called on the players to “be reasonable” as they negotiate a return to the field. Pritzker even went so far as to question the salaries baseball players earn, saying he’s “disappointed in many ways that players are holding out for these very, very high salaries and payments during a time when I think everybody is sacrificing.” The governor reversed course on Wednesday after his comments gained national prominence in some sports publications. I want to apologize for leaving the impression that baseball players shouldn’t have the right to bargain to protect their health and safety. I absolutely support that right, and I should have made that more clear,” Pritzker said.

Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.