Pritzker Wants Legislature To Return As He Threatens To Withhold Money From Towns That Defy COVID-19 Orders

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

Pritzker Wants Legislature To Return As He Threatens To Withhold Money From Towns That Defy COVID-19 Orders

Gov. JB Pritzker called on Illinois legislators to return to Springfield to take up a sprawling coronavirus economic relief package for the state’s residents and small business, while also threatening to withhold federal aid intended for local governments that willfully buck his stay-at-home order.

Before Tuesday, Pritzker had been reluctant to call state legislators back into session at the statehouse over concerns of opening the statehouse to the public, legislative aides and lawmakers. His own current executive order forbids gatherings of more than 10 people.

But citing the economic hardship caused by the global coronavirus pandemic, Pritzker called on the state General Assembly to reconvene “expeditiously.”

“The legislature must convene so that we can begin to put our financial and economic house back in order even as we battle this terrible virus,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker gave a top-line summary of what he would like to see included in such a package:

  • Increasing rent and mortgage assistance for families and small businesses

  • Providing grants and loans for new businesses and those that are restarting after being forced to shut down

  • Giving tax credits for small business job recovery, prioritizing industries and businesses left out of the Paycheck Protection Program from the federal government

  • Distributing money to small cities to help them fund first responders and other essential services

Pritzker declined to say how much his proposal is worth, adding it depends on the size of the next stimulus package out of Congress, which is likely still weeks away.

Pritzker has also previously emphasized the need for the legislature to pass a state budget, though he has not yet detailed where he would suggest cuts be made to fill a deficit of up to $10 billion over the next two years.

Illinois Republicans have already been calling on House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President Don Harmon to bring legislators back into session, particularly so they could be a part of a process for reopening the state’s economy.

“Mr. Speaker and the House Democrats, get back into the game. Get your head out of the sand and let’s go back to work,” House Minority Leader Jim Durkin said last week.

In response to his Republican counterpart’s criticism, Madigan issued a written statement that suggested he is not in a rush to call 118 House members back into session.

“While I am eager to see a return to normalcy, we are talking about people’s lives, and any plan for a return to Springfield must have the health and safety of all those involved as a top priority, including the communities the members represent,” Madigan said.

But Harmon, the newly-elected Democratic Senate President, seemed more open to Pritzker’s call.

“Like the governor, the Senate is eager to provide relief for families and small businesses hit by this pandemic,” Harmon’s spokesman John Patterson said. “We are reviewing recommendations for action as the Senate President wants to make sure Senators return to a crystal clear legislative agenda and a plan to minimize the health and safety risks to everyone working at the Capitol.”

As governor, Pritzker has the ability to call special legislative sessions. But the governor noted Tuesday that just because he calls a special session does not mean lawmakers would show up. Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich repeatedly ordered the legislature to return to Springfield during his public disputes with Madigan, only to see lawmakers reject the governor’s call.

Meantime, Pritzker continues to face questions about how he intends to enforce his stay-at-home order in the face of scofflaw local towns or counties that are primarily downstate. Pritzker said he would consider withholding federal COVID-19 aid intended for the local governments that pass resolutions or look the other way against businesses that open in spite of the governor’s order.

“These people do not follow science or data,” Pritzker said. “They’re just listening to partisan rhetoric, perhaps, and following their own instincts but no science.”

The state recorded 4,014 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the last 24 hours. That number shatters the previous record of individuals in the state who tested positive in a 24-hour period of 2,994. In addition, the state reported another 144 coronavirus-related deaths.

Those numbers were reported just as Pritzker faced criticism from a former political foe.

In text messages with NBC 5 reporter Mary Ann Ahern, former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner accused Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders of being “worse than the disease.

“When did policy goal shift from ‘flatten the curve’ to ‘keep everyone safe?’ ” he wrote. “The latter is not possible.”

Pritzker, who defeated Rauner by 16 points in 2018, concisely shot back, “I’ll readily admit that a primary policy goal of mine is to in fact to keep the people of Illinois safe.”

Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.