General Assembly returns to Springfield as pandemic rocks budget plans
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General Assembly returns to Springfield as pandemic rocks budget plans

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HOUSE WORK

Workers have nearly completed preparations for the arrival of Illinois state representatives at the Bank of Springfield Center in Springfield when the Illinois General Assembly returns Wednesday for three days to take up a spring session workload long delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. The House will gather at the downtown location instead of in their chamber in the Illinois Capitol building a few blocks away because it affords more space for legislators to practice social distancing.

The Illinois General Assembly is returning to Springfield on Wednesday for the first time in nearly 11 weeks, meeting in a special session that figures to be driven by pandemic-heightened divides between Democrats and Republicans, and urban and rural splits over how to move the state forward in the new world of the coronavirus.

Lawmakers are scheduled to meet for just three days to try to put together a spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1, a coronavirus response package that covers employment, education, health care and the courts, an enhanced vote-by-mail program for November, and a program to provide funding for safety-net hospitals that care for the poor.

But the pandemic has created plenty of unknowns, not the least of which is how far work on a budget can progress without a clear picture of how much relief will be coming from Washington to counter plummeting tax receipts -- even as demands for dealing with the state’s most vulnerable residents grows.

“It’s a difficult dynamic, and there’s no good choices. There’s just bad choices and less bad choices. It’s been a very difficult situation,” said state Rep. Michael Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat.

The reconvening of the legislature also holds the potential for creating a forum for Republicans eager to challenge Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders and plans to reopen Illinois’ economy.

“It’s time the General Assembly wake up. The world has changed. Our lives have all changed. And Illinois has changed as well. It is time we change how we govern,” said Jim Durkin, the House Republican leader from Western Springs.

The first item up for consideration in the newly reconvened House provides potential for partisan pandemic pandemonium.

With a few Downstate Republican lawmakers declaring they will not wear face masks -- as recommended by Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines -- to show their defiance to Pritzker’s orders, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan is proposing a change to the chamber’s rules to require masks, daily temperature checks and physical distancing.

“After the motion passes, any member in violation of this rule change will face discipline, including potentially being removed from the chamber by a vote of the House,” Madigan said in a statement.

Madigan said the move was aimed at focusing the chamber’s work on responding to the pandemic and “not on needless distractions.”

But there will be plenty of distractions, not the least of which is the Senate and House working from different locations in Springfield.

The 59-member Senate will meet in its ornate chamber in the state Capitol. But due to physical distancing, not all of the senators will be on the floor at the same time, and some will be sitting in the galleries up above. Voting may be done by groups of lawmakers or by a senator in the gallery signaling to another senator on the floor of the chamber.

The House will convene blocks away at the Bank of Springfield Center, a multipurpose arena that can hold nearly 8,000 people. The 118-member chamber will meet on the arena floor, each seated behind a six-foot table to ensure social distancing. Without being able to cast votes electronically, House members will be called upon individually to cast a voice vote.

Once lawmakers begin their work, the top item will be attempting to formulate a budget already steeped in red ink and uncertainty.

Pritzker has previously said that, because of the pandemic shutdown, the state faces a $2.7 billion revenue shortfall for the remainder of this budget year and up to $7.4 billion next year if voters on Nov. 3 don’t adopt his proposed constitutional amendment to impose a graduated rate income tax.

“The effect on the revenue is nothing short of catastrophic,” said Zalewski, who chairs the House Revenue and Finance Committee.

Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park said lawmakers will focus on trying to come up with a maintenance level budget for now, concentrating on health care and social service issues related to the pandemic, with the realization that lawmakers will have to return at an as-yet-undetermined later date to make adjustments.

“What I’m hoping we will do is a preservation budget where we will protect the progress we have made, not go backwards,” Harmon said. “So I’m telling folks if you are able to secure level funding from last year for whatever area that is a priority for you, that should be considered a big win.”


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Though Pritzker said lawmakers won’t be approving a “lump sum” budget that basically gives him the authority to choose where to spend and where to cut, legislators are expected to give him flexibility to move dollars between different agencies and accounts.

Republicans, however, say they have been shut out of talks with Democratic working groups on the budget, providing one more area of partisan protest though they don’t have the votes to block any spending plans.

Durkin said GOP lawmakers are looking for cuts in spending, something he said the public wants to see given how the private sector has been forced to shut down businesses and lay off workers.

“If we can’t live by what everyone else has had to go through in this state of Illinois because of the governor’s order and because of this pandemic, we have no right to be in Springfield at all. None of us,” Durkin said.

Pritzker said the GOP’s first budget choice was for cuts, regardless of the pandemic. But he said it was important to preserve government support services for those in need because of the health- and economic-related effects of the coronavirus.

Republicans have made it clear that they plan to challenge Pritzker’s recent emergency rule change that would allow business owners to face a class A misdemeanor charge of up to a $2,500 fine or 364 days in jail for opening their doors in violation of the governor’s stay-at-home order.

Pritzker said the rule change was an attempt to “lighten” the penalties business owners face through a fine and citation rather than to have their businesses shut down or lose their business license.

“We’re following the law that already existed,” Pritzker said, citing Public Health laws.

Rep. Keith Wheeler of Oswego said he will attempt to block the rule change through the bipartisan Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, which he co-chairs.

“A single mom doing nails in her own home to try to feed her children and keep a roof over their heads would be subject to a substantial penalty and even jail time,” Wheeler said. “Keep in mind that these are the same folks that state government has failed to help in any meaningful way when it comes to unemployment.

It would take eight votes of the 12-member committee to block Pritzker’s rule, meaning two Democrats would have to side with GOP lawmakers. Sen. Bill Cunningham of Chicago, the panel’s Democratic chairman, declined comment.

Primarily, Republicans want to weigh in on Pritzker’s five-phase plan to reopen the state’s economy, preferably with a floor vote.

“Probably our biggest priority at this point is taking up the governor’s plan to phase-in Illinois’ economy. We’ve called on hearings with the governor’s office so the public can better understand why this phase-in is taking so long,” Durkin said.

“We have to be part of this process of decision making. This isn’t a government that’s relying upon one person and one agency. That’s why we have separation of powers. That’s why we have co-equal branches of government,” he said.

Pritzker earlier this week said he didn’t need the Democratic-controlled House and Senate to validate his orders and plans.

“I think that we’re on a good path. We’ve got a Restore Illinois plan that puts on a good path to reopen, and so I think existing legislation has been good enough,” he said.

Democrats have already begun arguing that the limited 72-hour duration of the special session leaves little time to engage in a debate over Pritzker’s powers.

“There’s not going to be a lot of bandwidth for extracurricular activities,” Zalewski said of the Republican efforts.

“I think our agenda is going to be really narrow and really focused in a desire to get us out of there for our own personal safety, staff safety and just because logistically there’s not going to be an opportunity to do more,” he said.


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