Illinois lawmakers have not officially met for a full legislative session day since late May — more than 200 days ago.
But a pair of Democrats on Monday introduced a bill that would allow the General Assembly to meet remotely throughout the duration of the pandemic, something lawmakers tried but ultimately couldn’t pass in the spring.
State Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago) said that in May, it was still unclear how much longer the danger would last. But after the legislature’s fall Veto Session was canceled last month — with Democratic legislative leaders citing spiking COVID metrics as the state saw a second wave of the virus — Williams said it was past time to follow the example of other state legislatures, Chicago City Council and other government bodies who’ve been able to meet remotely.
“We’re dealing with a crisis of epic proportions both on the public health front as well as economically,” Williams told NPR Illinois. “We want to get back to work…We don’t have time to wait for the pandemic to blow over.”
Except for a truncated four-day session in May, lawmakers have been left largely on the sidelines on decisions about how state government should manage the COVID-19 pandemic, with Gov. JB Pritzker ruling via a series of executive orders powered by continuing disaster declarations. Those consecutive disaster declarations allow the governor to wield extraordinary power, including his spring stay-at-home order and this fall’s shuttering of indoor dining and drinking as the virus made a vicious return.
Legal challenges to Pritzker’s use of executive power have failed in state court over and over again, most recently on Monday when a judge in Clay County found the governor was within his rights to declare multiple disaster declarations. That decision vacated an earlier decision friendly to local State Rep. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia), who has become a poster child for resisting Pritzker’s executive orders throughout the pandemic.
Despite the failed lawsuits, however, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have grown frustrated about their comparative powerlessness as the legislature has not been able to meet — though the Senate last spring changed its rules to allow for some remote work, like virtual committees, which the body has taken advantage of.
Williams said the logistics for remote legislating would need to be figured out, but pointed to 24 other state legislatures, which have been able to use technology like Zoom and other video conferencing for meeting and even passing laws.
The bill failed in the spring after a Republican push to shut down the bill, but Williams said she’s worked with GOP leaders since May and the legislation she put forward this week would be a “starting point” for negotiation.
“The intent is not to incorporate remote legislating into our regular way of operating. It’s really designed for very unusual and hopefully rare circumstances — things like a pandemic or a terrorist attack.”
Most lawmakers made it to Springfield for the General Assembly’s four-day session in May, but some stayed home due to COVID-19 diagnoses or exposure. State Sen. Rob Martwick (D-Chicago) has serious pre-existing conditions and opted to stay home, too.
But on the extended Saturday session day, Martwick was told his vote on a massive gambling-related bill was needed, and the Democrat drove the three hours down to the state Capitol, mostly staying in his office until his vote could be counted.
In a statement Monday, Martwick said Pritzker does have emergency powers “to secure the health of our state.”
“However, it is the legislature’s responsibility to enact the long term policies, in accordance with the needs of our unique and diverse constituencies, which will chart the path forward as we recover from this pandemic,” Martwick said.
If the legislature convenes in person for a so-called Lame Duck session in early January, lawmakers could pass a negotiated version of the bill, which Pritzker has previously indicated he’d support.
However, the legislation may only prove useful during the 102nd General Assembly, which begins Jan. 13, if Democrats in the House are able to agree on a new leader. On the day the new General Assembly is sworn in, their first votes are for legislative leaders, including Speaker of the House.
Now that embattled longtime House Speaker Mike Madigan has lost key support for his re-election to the post after being tied to a federal corruption probe, it’s still unclear if or when another House Democrat will be able to make a play for the role.
House rules dictate that no substantive legislation can be discussed until a speaker is chosen, but Madigan has said he still intends on running for an unprecedented 19th term as House Speaker, even as 19 House Democrats have publicly said they will not vote for him.