With a pandemic still killing Illinoisans by the dozens every day, state lawmakers venture back to Springfield on Wednesday for an emergency special session that could become one of the most memorable, if not riskiest, in memory.
For three days, the Democratic-led House and Senate have a full agenda that could include a state budget for the upcoming fiscal year, a COVID-19 relief package and election legislation designed, in part, to expand Illinois’ vote-by-mail program this fall.
The 59-member state Senate will meet in its usual statehouse chamber. But the House will move to the capital city’s civic center, where gubernatorial inaugurations and concerts are held, in order to allow its 118 members enough room for proper social distancing.
All lawmakers are to be tested for COVID-19 before coming to Springfield, where they’ll have to undergo temperature checks before entering either building and wear facial coverings under dictates by House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park.
Those safety guidelines are among several recommended by state public health authorities to help prevent the capital from turning into a dangerous, coronavirus petri dish because of the presence of lawmakers, their staffs and a crush of lobbyists.
“Everything we’ll be doing is a brand new world for us down there,” said House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago.
For starters, Gov. JB Pritzker intends to be in Springfield for the legislative session after emerging from self-quarantine because a senior staffer tested positive for COVID-19 on May 11.
Then there are some of the secessionist Eastern bloc members of the House from downstate, whose legislative claim to fame arguably has been a blustery and so far fruitless effort to apportion Chicago into its own state. Rep. Daren Bailey, R-Xenia and Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, have not committed to wearing facial coverings when House session opens, setting up a potential confrontation with Madigan over floor access.
On Tuesday, in an unusually blunt statement clearly aimed at the potential non-mask-wearers, Madigan threatened to expel anyone without facial coverings from the proceedings. The speaker said the first course of action Wednesday would be passing a rule change requiring members wear masks.
“After the motion passes, any member in violation of the rule change will face discipline, including potentially being removed from the chamber by a vote of the House,” Madigan said. “This is not an action I take lightly, but when it comes to the health and safety of members, their families, staff and the communities they represent, it is the right and prudent thing to do.”
House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said this week that he intends to wear a facial covering and submit to a temperature check, and advised all 44 House Republicans to do so as well.
“I’m encouraging my members to comply,” Durkin said when asked about the possibility of some of his members being denied floor access over the issue. “After that, it’s up to the speaker.”
The anxiety isn’t without precedent. In Georgia, where a special legislative session convened in March, six state senators later tested positive for COVID-19. The entire state legislature was advised to go into a two-week self-quarantine after the first member tested positive.
Nationally, as of last week, 14 states had postponed their legislative sessions amid fears of the coronavirus.
With Illinois timidly moving forward with its own session, here’s a quick glance at some of the issues to expect during this abbreviated and odd legislative gathering.
A new state budget
The coronavirus pandemic has blown a monstrous hole in the state’s treasury. Pritzker estimates the damage stands at $10 billion over the next two years — if voters reject his graduated income tax amendment in November. More immediately, Pritzker last month said the state faces a $2.7 billion shortfall for the fiscal year that ends June 30.
Pritzker, who has had to scrap a budget outline for Fiscal Year 2021 that he proposed back in February, has already said he does not want to see cuts to sensitive government programs within the state’s child welfare system, the department that handles unemployment claims or the state’s public health department. He also has vowed to pay what the state owes in its pension obligations.
“We are not going to do things like pension holidays or skipping debt service,” Harris said. “We’re going to make sure we are paying those obligations. What we will do is give additional management flexibility to the governor and his budget office to manage unexpected downturns in the economy but also to account for federal stimulus money if Congress passes a bill sometime after the new fiscal year takes effect.”
Pritzker recently warned that there may have to be cuts to the budgets of schools and higher education if Congress does not provide relief for state budgets in the coming weeks. But with that federal aid uncertain, it remains unclear where legislators will propose cuts.
A COVID-19 relief package
Pritzker has called on legislators to approve an economic relief package for Illinois residents hurt economically by the response to the coronavirus pandemic. He’s said a package should include:
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
The governor has not put a cost on these priorities, again citing the uncertainty around how much Congress will include in its economic aid stimulus to states. The governor’s legislative allies say the focus will be on groups that have been most impacted by COVID-19.
“We are looking at communities that have been disproportionately hit by COVID, addressing some of the disparities in the communities, particularly black and brown communities, which have issues regarding health care, economic recovery. We want to be sure to prioritize those,” Harris said. “We also want to put in place assistance for homeowners, renters and small businesses.”
The House majority leader said he doesn’t anticipate provisions that would authorize the state’s Revenue Department to distribute relief checks to Illinoisans in a way the federal CARES Act did.
A list of potential agenda items issued by Madigan’s office also raised the possibility a COVID-19 package could offer free museum admission; delay interest accrual and tax sales relating to property taxes; and authorize the state Supreme Court to waive speedy trial requirements in emergencies.
An election omnibus
Pritzker has also called for lawmakers to approve legislation to broaden the state’s vote-by-mail program for November’s election.
“Fewer people going to the ballot box in November is better for all of us in terms of keeping people healthy and safe,” said Pritzker, who faced criticism for not delaying the state’s March 17 primary as the pandemic took root in Illinois. The governor added that he would like to also see provisions that would keep the state’s elections free from external interference. In 2016, Russians hacked the State Board of Elections website.
Graduated income tax preparations
Lawmakers need to approve the language voters will see on November’s ballot asking if they want to amend the state constitution to move from the current flat income tax rate to a graduated income tax, in which those earning more money pay a higher percent to the state.
It comes as Durkin and Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, are asking Pritzker to drop the amendment altogether, despite it being a major component of Pritzker’s campaign for governor.
“The recession caused by this pandemic will turn into a never-ending depression in Illinois with the progressive tax,” Durkin warned.
With Democrats having supermajorities in both legislative chambers, the Republicans’ wish has little chance of being granted. In fact, Prtizker has argued the state needs a graduated income tax now more than ever.
“This isn’t just about one year,” Pritzker said. “It’s about fixing the structural deficit that exists for the state. We’re in a pandemic. We’re in an emergency. This crisis is causing a significant disruption to our fiscal year coming up. But we have many years ahead, and I think a fairer tax system makes sense to me.”
Pritzker’s emergency powers
While lawsuits continue to crop up around the state challenging Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders, the governor clarified that he is not seeking legislative input to cement his executive order authority further.
The agenda memo issued by Madigan’s office, however, suggests some of his emergency-driven executive orders could be codified into law. The memo mentions possible legalization of electronic notarization on legal documents, open-records request delays under the state Freedom of Information Act, remote public meetings and delayed filing requirements for public officials who must file annual state economic-interest statements. The memo also hints at action on the issue of health care providers’ legal immunity in public-health emergencies, another subject of a Pritzker executive order.
Pritzker has won a pair of federal court rulings in cases launched against the state by churches seeking to hold services with more than 10 people in attendance. But he lost a high profile case brought against the state by Bailey, R-Xenia. A judge in downstate Clay County ruled the governor’s order didn’t apply to Bailey, who later withdrew that case and filed a new lawsuit seeking to have the governor’s order lifted for the entire state. A hearing on that case is set for Friday.
Pritzker said that instead of turning to his executive authority, he expects lawmakers to “be focused on the very basics.”
Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.