Vote-By-Mail Expansion Clears Statehouse, But Budget And COVID-19 Relief Are Still In Limbo

Julie Morrison Senate
Illinois State Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield, listens to questions from the Republican side of the aisle during debate on SB1863, a bill dealing with vote by mail and other changes for the 2020 election, on the floor of the Illinois Senate during session at the Illinois State Capitol, Friday, May 22, 2020, in Springfield, Ill. The State Journal-Register via AP, Pool
Julie Morrison Senate
Illinois State Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield, listens to questions from the Republican side of the aisle during debate on SB1863, a bill dealing with vote by mail and other changes for the 2020 election, on the floor of the Illinois Senate during session at the Illinois State Capitol, Friday, May 22, 2020, in Springfield, Ill. The State Journal-Register via AP, Pool

Vote-By-Mail Expansion Clears Statehouse, But Budget And COVID-19 Relief Are Still In Limbo

Plans to send nearly 5 million Illinoisans vote-by-mail applications for the fall election and to borrow $5 billion won final legislative approval Friday, but lawmakers failed to do the main thing they were sent to Springfield to do: Pass a new budget.

There was a hurry-up-and-wait tenor to what had been widely believed to be the final day of a truncated, three-day spring legislative session overshadowed by public health anxieties about the COVID-19 pandemic.

But at the end of a long legislative day, lawmakers in their mandated facial coverings faced at least one more day in the state capital Saturday, as they headed into the Memorial Day weekend with major pieces of their agenda still unresolved.

Two big priorities of Gov. JB Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot didn’t take flight Friday.

The governor’s push for legislation to authorize fines against businesses that defy his pandemic orders was in search of a legislative pulse, prompting him to throw some uncharacteristic jabs at his Democratic allies in the General Assembly.

“[Legislators] don’t seem to want to help in any way dealing with the COVID-19 crisis by offering us the ability to use a small enforcement mechanism,” Pritzker vented to news reporters Friday afternoon.

Lightfoot’s chief Springfield priority was a tweak to the tax structure in state law permitting a Chicago casino in order to make the venue more attractive to potential operators. The impact of that push carries big implications for Chicago’s coronavirus-ravaged budget, particularly since she is banking on a casino to fund the city’s massive pension obligations.

Late Friday, a House panel positioned legislation involving the Chicago casino for a full House vote Saturday. But there was no certainty it had the legs to make it through both chambers of the General Assembly even with the governor’s backing.

November vote-by-mail expansion heads toward becoming law

One big area where both the House, Senate and Pritzker were aligned Friday was the measure to send 4.8 million people in the state vote-by-mail applications to lessen the chances that crowded polling places could become COVID-19 clusters in November’s election.

The vote-by-mail measure, which passed 37 to19 earlier Friday over Republican claims it would lead to vote fraud, passed both chambers and can move to Pritzker. The Democrat announced Friday afternoon that he plans to sign it into law.

“Sending vote-by-mail applications to residents who have participated in recent elections will allow more people to vote from the safety of their own homes and help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” Pritzker said in an emailed statement.

Earlier in the day, State Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield, the bill’s chief Senate sponsor, said the plan is scaled back from her earlier push to send actual ballots to all voters by mail and targets residents who have voted in an election since to 2018.

“It is our responsibility as state government, if we’ve learned nothing else in the past two months, to plan and prepare, and this initiative is simply that,” she said. “And it does encourage and promote the use of vote-by-mail for that purpose: to help the safety of the electorate.”

The plan, which only applies to the November elections, would allow for local authorities to establish curbside drop-off locations for mail-in voters. It also would establish a state holiday on Nov. 3 for school and university employees.

That would clear out schools on Election Day, which are likely going to be used as polling places in greater numbers this year, as locations with vulnerable populations – like nursing homes – will no longer be available due to the coronavirus threat.

GOP President Donald Trump has demonized other states that have taken similar approaches, including Michigan. Like the president, Republicans in Illinois said the Democratic legislation would be an open invitation to vote fraud.

They took issue with its allowance for people as young as 16 to be election judges, the absence of specific language about what ballot collection receptacles should look like, and the possibility that a single voter could send in a ballot by mail, vote at their regular polling place and cast a vote in a centralized location – all on the same day.

“While I’m for vote-by-mail, I don’t support vote-by-fraud, and unfortunately this is the Vote Fraud Legalization Act,” said state Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield, an opponent of the legislation.

Data from the State Board of Elections shows vote-by-mail balloting has been on a steady climb.

In the March primary, which Pritzker allowed to proceed despite calls to postpone it because of the pandemic, more than 207,000 voters cast votes by mail, nearly triple the share of mail-in votes cast during the 2016 presidential primary. Four years ago, more than 119,000 ballots were cast by mail in the presidential primary.

In the 2016 general election, nearly 371,000 ballots were cast by mail, accounting for 6.5 percent of all votes cast. In the general election two years later, nearly 430,000 ballots were cast by mail, representing more than 9 percent of all ballots cast.

Lawmakers OK borrowing – but still no budget

The other area where Springfield’s ruling Democrats were in agreement was on a major borrowing package that aims to backfill a budget for the state fiscal year beginning July 1 that one Republican estimate has as $5.8 billion out of balance.

Democratic majorities in the House and Senate voted to authorize $5 billion in state borrowing through a COVID-19 program offered to the states by the Federal Reserve.

Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, said not all of the money would be borrowed at once, and he hoped that the loans the state did take out could be repaid through another federal COVID-19 stimulus package.

“The borrowing is far from optimal, but I would say it’s the best of the bad options we have,” Harmon said ahead of the Senate’s 37-19 vote, which means the measure can go to the governor.

Pritzker has frequently called on help from Congress to plug the budget hole caused by his closure of the state’s economy to help slow the spread of COVID-19. But it remains unclear when — or if — that federal help will arrive.

Meanwhile, parts of the Democrats’ $39.9 billion state budget advanced in the House and Senate, but the whole package still needs final legislative approval when the two chambers reconvene Saturday.

Included in the budget is billions of dollars for coronavirus-related spending, from $600 million for contact tracing and testing, to more than $200 million for small business grants for those forced to close up shop.

The budget plan also adds the required $7.2 billion to the evidence-based school funding formula.

And the budget proposal includes $6.4 million to settle lawsuits from a dozen families against the state over the deaths of their loved ones due to Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at the Quincy veterans’ home. The multiple outbreaks were the subject of a years-long WBEZ investigation.

In another development, lawmakers advanced a measure to classify a police or firefighter’s death from COVID-19 as a work-related death, which would avail their surviving family members to enhanced benefits. Similarly, essential workers who test positive for COVID-19 are presumed to have contracted the virus while on the job for the purposes of claiming workers’ compensation.

Tougher penalties for facial covering fights

With threats piling up against Illinois retailers seeking to enforce facial-covering mandates in stores, the House took up legislation that would enhance criminal penalties for anyone who harms store employees who confront non-mask-wearing customers.

The debate turned heated, however, when the measure’s sponsor, State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, was questioned why harsher penalties were needed when it’s already against the law to assault someone.

“That’s an existing crime,” Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, D-Naperville, said.

“Well then vote no. Just vote no. It’s ok. The world will keep moving on without you,” Hoffman shot back. “If you don’t want to help the people who every day are on the front lines —”

“I do want to help people every day on the front lines and the laws that exist already do that,” Stava-Murray replied.

The measure passed 95 to 10, with five representatives voting Present. It still needs Senate approval.

The measure sunsets six months after the COVID-19 disaster declarations end.

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