Pritzker Cites ‘Progress’ In Legislature’s Emergency Session

The governor got a budget, but he hit lawmakers for “abdication” in not giving him tools to enforce his emergency pandemic orders.

Illinois House COVID-19 session
Lawmakers completed a four-day special session of the Illinois legislature. Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register via AP, Pool
Illinois House COVID-19 session
Lawmakers completed a four-day special session of the Illinois legislature. Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register via AP, Pool

Pritzker Cites ‘Progress’ In Legislature’s Emergency Session

The governor got a budget, but he hit lawmakers for “abdication” in not giving him tools to enforce his emergency pandemic orders.

Fresh off of completing a four-day special legislative session, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker Sunday praised his fellow Democrats for approving a budget that will keep basic government programs funded during the coronavirus pandemic but that heavily relies on borrowing to do so.

Besides taking a victory lap for his legislative wins, the governor used a briefing in his statehouse office to lay out new guidelines for the partial reopening of the state’s economy that he intends to authorize this week because of falling COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

“Progress has happened here,” Pritzker said of the array of new legislation soon headed his way. “And in just four days, ambitious legislation was passed that invests in core priorities and continues to innovate the way our government operates in the face of this global pandemic.”

The House and Senate gave final legislative approval to a $39.9 billion budget, passed a series of COVID-19 relief initiatives and fine-tuned existing law to make a proposed Chicago casino more economically viable, a move that was a big win for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and has important implications for the city’s budget.

Lawmakers also enhanced the state’s vote-by-mail program for the November election and, in a significant give to Illinois’ economically hemorrhaging hospitality industry, authorized the home delivery and take-out of craft cocktails.

Pritzker appeared before reporters only hours after an early-morning Sunday adjournment of a truncated and surreal legislative session, where lawmakers were forced to legislate while wearing facial coverings, undergo temperature checks and maintain at least six feet of space from one another at all times.

By all measures, it was a session unlike all others — at least since the last great pandemic hit Illinois in 1918 and 1919.

“Nobody thinks this is a preferred way to operate, to do everything in four days. Indeed, I was hoping the legislature would’ve gotten together much earlier. It was their choice about when. I can completely understand,” Pritzker said. “You saw how many people had pre-existing conditions and either weren’t able to come or people who were just deeply concerned about coming because they were concerned about getting coronavirus. I have great sympathy for that.”

“But at least a budget went through and we were able to get a few important things done so we can operate going forward,” Pritzker said.

While mostly throwing bouquets at the work of the Democratic-led House and Senate, he delivered one pointed jab at lawmakers for refusing to give him clear-cut authority to fine businesses that defy his pandemic-response orders.

Earlier in the week, the governor withdrew a proposed rule that would have authorized his administration to impose fines of up to $2,500 and a possible one-year jail sentence against defiant businesses that ignore his public-health guidelines. But even within his own party, support for that waned in an election year, and legislation to at least allow fines never got a hearing.

“I am very disappointed. I think it was a complete abdication of responsibility on the part of the legislature,” the governor said. “None of us wants to exercise the ability to take away somebody’s license that’s been given to them by the state to do business. Nobody wants to shut down a business. What we were looking for was a way to issue a citation.

“We left it to the legislature to decide what that citation would be. I was hopeful and expectant they’d deliver to me a bill that said that, but they were unwilling to vote on anything like that or they didn’t get it done, so we’re going to have to look at other mechanisms,” he said. “But the fact is, I think the legislature failed in this regard.”

Republicans had hoped to use the four-day session to pass legislation that would put a legal check on the governor’s extensive use of executive orders to manage the pandemic. But that, too, fell by the wayside without a hearing, which arguably could strengthen his legal hand against state and federal lawsuits that have challenged his emergency powers.

The governor’s existing stay-at-home order expires May 29, when bars and restaurants will be allowed to provide outdoor seating, health clubs and gyms can do one-on-one training or outdoor classes of 10 people or fewer and barbershops and salons can reopen under proper social-distancing safeguards.

The governor would not respond directly to a question about whether he intends to retool the existing stay-at-home order or extend the existing statewide pandemic disaster declaration that expires at month’s end and which has been the source of his emergency powers.

“We want to make sure we can implement the Restore Illinois plan and…taking care of the health and safety of the people of Illinois is paramount,” the governor said, referring to the branding title of his reopening plan. “We’re looking at it.”

Separately, Pritzker for the first time Sunday unveiled new guidance for specific industries as they begin to reopen later this week, including day camps, outdoor recreation and youth sports. Each of the four regions of the state remain on-track to meet the metrics Pritzker established for moving to Phase Three of his Restore Illinois plan by Friday.

For example, the state’s guidance for offices is that no more than half of a company’s workforce be in the office at the same time. It also discourages employees from using shared work spaces and suggests that vending machines be sanitized after each use. Elevator use should allow for social distancing.

For retailers, the state is asking shopping malls to remove all of the tables at food courts, to shut off water fountains and to limit a store’s occupancy to 50% of capacity.

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