Illinois legislators are poised to return to the state capitol for a special session Tuesday to potentially approve new legislative boundaries for themselves, even as they face repeated criticism for a closed-door process and a lawsuit that has potential to upend the mapmaking system.
The rare one-day session comes amid fiercely partisan accusations from Republicans that Democrats are attempting to gerrymander state legislative districts in an effort to retain their supermajority status in both the House and Senate. Several community groups have also voiced concerns that the districts do not adequately represent minority populations, and that their criticisms have not been taken into account.
The process of drawing new legislative boundaries — determining a community’s elected representatives — occurs after each census every 10 years. Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker already signed into law one set of new legislative boundaries that Democrats approved in May.
But those districts relied on estimated census data due to federal delays in releasing Illinois and other states’ data because of the pandemic. Democrats plowed forward in spite of transparency criticisms because the state constitution requires political maps be approved by June 30. If they aren’t, a process is launched that ultimately could have put the GOP in charge of drafting the new maps.
The federal government released more complete census data earlier this month, prompting Democrats to restart legislative hearings and call Tuesday’s session. But community advocates are continuing their criticisms of Democrats for seeking input from the public, but not actually releasing maps for the public to consider.
“We are once again witnessing a process that’s unlikely to see much in terms of true community engagement,” Jay Young, executive director of Common Cause Illinois, skeptically told lawmakers at a public hearing last week.
And Dilara Sayeed, with the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition, asked that legislators hold off on approving new district boundaries until more census data is released specific to residents’ ethnicities.
She noted, for example, that the census sought to classify Arab communities as white, a characterization that could skew the census data and lead to little — if any — representation in Springfield.
“Do not push to 2030 to provide representation for communities that have zero or minimal representation right now,” Sayeed said.
Miguel del Valle, a former Illinois state senator who is now president of the Chicago Board of Education, also testified recently against the districts already signed into law and urged legislators to take into account the growing Latino population.
“It is the population that has grown the most, and so I think it’s only right that we be looking at those numbers and see where the modifications need to be made,” he said.
Republicans, who lack power in both the Illinois House and Senate, challenged the approved maps in federal court earlier this year, a case that remains pending. With no majority in the House or Senate and a Democratic governor, that lawsuit remains their shot at having at least some say over the legislative boundaries that could dictate which way a swing district goes for the next decade.
GOP lawmakers joined the chorus of community groups last week as the party seeks to regain the political ground that has been lost over the years in both legislative and statewide offices.
“I think there’s a very real and concerning lack of trust that exists as a result of this months-long process,” State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, said.
While Democrats plan to address state legislative maps in Tuesday’s session, there is still no schedule for when they will present new congressional maps. The state will lose one seat in congress, but remains a place that some consider “absolutely critical” to which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives.
Another unknown factor facing lawmakers as they return on Tuesday is what will become of a stalemate over massive energy legislation. That plan would include hundreds of millions of dollars in new ratepayer subsidies for Exelon Generation to keep three of its Illinois nuclear plants in operation for at least the next five years. But talks stalled in June over a dispute about the eventual closure of a downstate coal plant.
They could also address the governor’s recent amendatory veto of an ethics bill that’s partially in response to recent federal indictments against former legislators and lobbyists. The bill would end the practice of legislators also being lobbyists before local governments and requires lobbyists disclose consultants they hire. Pritzker suggested legislators change one part of the bill pertaining to executive inspectors general, a move that would need legislative approval.
Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow @tonyjarnold.