July 17, 2020
At all times, it is important that the Illinois General Assembly be able to conduct its legislative duties safely, effectively and in open view of the public. This remains true during emergencies such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. To ensure a fully functioning legislature now and in the future, the Civic Federation urges the General Assembly to authorize virtual legislative sessions and committee meetings during the rare occasions when face-to-face gatherings are too dangerous. All remote sessions and meetings should be accessible to the public through widely available technology.
When the new coronavirus struck, the Illinois General Assembly and most other state legislatures were in regular session. By mid-March about half of the legislatures across the country had suspended operations for safety reasons. Normally state lawmakers must be physically present in order to make sure rules are followed and the public can view debate and voting. However, by the end of May legislatures or chambers in more than 20 states had changed procedures to allow for remote participation in floor sessions or committee meetings, generally on a temporary basis. In Pennsylvania, for example, many state lawmakers have been voting remotely since March. The New York legislature approved a budget by video conference in April. During the pandemic, Wisconsin lawmakers for the first time took advantage of a 2009 law that allows virtual meetings during disasters. Michigan, on the other hand, has a state constitution that requires the legislature to hold in-person meetings.
In Illinois the 177-member General Assembly did not meet between March 5 and May 20, as Democratic leaders who control the legislature developed procedures to allow members and staff to meet safely in person. The leaders and Governor J.B. Pritzker ruled out virtual meetings because of a State law that was interpreted to require face-to-face meetings. Specifically, the General Assembly Organization Act states that legislative sessions must be held at the “seat of government,” except when the Governor convenes the General Assembly “at some other place” in the case of pestilence or public danger. The word “place” in the statute has been read to mean a physical location. Meanwhile, the Chicago City Council and Cook County Board of Commissioners began holding video conference meetings in April that have been livestreamed to the public.
On May 20, the Illinois General Assembly held a four-day special session in Springfield. Members wore masks and the House moved its operations to the city’s convention center to maintain social distancing. Several members missed the session due to underlying medical conditions or contact with individuals who had tested positive for the virus. Lawmakers raced through an agenda that included operating and capital budgets for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2020; authority to borrow $5 billion through an emergency Federal Reserve lending program; legislation to encourage voting by mail in the November general election; and revisions to the tax structure for a proposed Chicago casino.
Closed-door negotiations are part of the mechanics of any legislature. However, this spring, unlike in normal times, the General Assembly did not hold committee meetings to air the issues involved in the thousands of pages of legislation filed and passed in the special session. Instead, the groundwork for the legislation was done privately, in informal working groups that met remotely. In previous years, the legislature had generally used such working groups sparingly to address specific topics. While the Illinois Constitution requires that all meetings of the General Assembly and its committees and commissions be open to the public, unless two-thirds of the chamber votes to close them, those requirements have not been applied to working groups.
A bill amending the General Assembly Organization Act to temporarily allow remote legislating was considered by the House and narrowly defeated during the special session. The measure, which would have expired in June 2022, would be effective “in times of pestilence or an emergency resulting from the effects of enemy attack or threatened enemy attack.” In those circumstances, the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate were authorized to issue a joint proclamation permitting remote participation and voting in floor sessions, and committees and commissions were permitted to participate remotely. Rules of each chamber could require that a quorum be physically present for sessions or committee meetings. During the debate, some critics said technological glitches could jeopardize members’ ability to vote or be heard in debates. Others worried that remote legislating might eventually be used in non-crisis situations, reducing the personal interactions that facilitate effective lawmaking. Another concern involved limits on public participation, although the measure specified that members of the public would be able to view any remote meetings or sessions.
After the remote legislating provision failed in the House, the Senate unanimously approved a rule to allow limited virtual participation. In times of pestilence or public danger, the new rule permits a member to participate remotely in sessions if a quorum is physically present. The rule also allows the Senate President, in consultation with the minority leader, to establish a process for remote public participation in committee meetings by senators and members of the public. Although no remote meetings are currently planned, Senate President Don Harmon believes lawmakers should learn from recent events and have the option available.
Civic Federation Position
The Civic Federation is encouraged by the Senate’s action but urges the General Assembly to go much further to respond to the current situation and prepare for future emergencies. Remote legislating is not ideal, but it is much better than the alternatives: abandoning legislative responsibilities or risking the health of lawmakers and staff. Illinois’ recent legislative session left much to be desired. The abridged session excluded public input and denied the public any view of the process until the very end. Lawmakers who stayed away due to health concerns were not able to represent their constituents. Given recent advances, the General Assembly should be able to adopt technologies that allow lawmakers to debate and vote remotely and permit public participation during crises.
If State law needs to be amended to permit virtual sessions in emergencies, then a physical quorum should not be required. That requirement could make it impossible for the legislature to function in times of extreme danger. Moreover, the Senate’s new rule suggests that no change in the General Assembly Organization Act is needed to permit remote committee meetings. The House should change its rules to allow virtual committee meetings and both chambers should establish processes to hold such meetings.
Following its normal practice, the General Assembly is not scheduled to meet again until mid-November. Recent events suggest the need for legislative deliberations—and potentially actions—before that date. For example, the revenue assumptions that underlie the FY2021 budget are likely to require adjustment, depending on the course of the pandemic, the pace of economic recovery and the availability of additional federal financial assistance. Several Illinois House members have called for a special legislative session on police reform and community development in the wake of recent protests over the killing of George Floyd. And, while the latest health statistics are encouraging, it is impossible to predict whether the full legislature will be able to convene in person in November. For all these reasons, the Civic Federation calls upon the Illinois General Assembly to convene as soon as practical a special session for the purpose of approving remote legislating during emergencies.
 National Conference of State Legislatures, Coronavirus: How It’s Changing State Legislatures, May 11, 2020, p. 2, https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/coronavirus-changing-state-legislatures-magazine2020.aspx.
 National Conference of State Legislatures, Continuity of Legislature During Emergency, June 17, 2020, p. 4, https://www.ncsl.org/research/about-state-legislatures/continuity-of-legislature-during-emergency.aspx#Remote.
 Geoffrey Skelley and Nathaniel Rakich, “The Pennsylvania Legislature is Testing Out Remote Voting. Here’s How It Works,” FiveThirtyEight, April 2, 2020, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/congress-has-resisted-remote-voting-but-some-state-legislatures-are-making-it-work/.
 Jon Campbell, “10 Things to know about New York’s new $177B budget deal,” Democrat & Chronicle, April 3, 2020, https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/politics/albany/2020/04/03/new-york-approves-budget-10-things-know/2939086001/.
 Mitchell Schmidt, “Assembly passes COVID-19 response legislation in unique virtual session,” Wisconsin State Journal, April 15, 2020, https://madison.com/wsj/news/local/govt-and-politics/assembly-passes-covid-19-response-legislation-in-unique-virtual-session/article_8248a262-ab42-5337-a94f-fa7a1ec5eae4.html.
 Tim Anderson, Council of State Governments Midwest, COVID-19 pandemic makes virtual legislating a reality in some Midwestern state; Wisconsin holds virtual session days in April, April 16, 2020, pp. 2-3, http://knowledgecenter.csg.org/kc/content/covid-19-pandemic-makes-virtual-legislating-reality-some-midwestern-states.
 Peter Hancock, “Republicans call for reopening legislative session,” Capitol News Illinois, April 29, 2020, https://capitolnewsillinois.com/NEWS/republicans-call-for-reopening-legislative-session#new_tab.
 Peter Hancock, “General Assembly can’t hold remote meetings, citing state law,” Capitol News Illinois, March 19, 2020, https://thesouthern.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/general-assembly-can-t-hold-remote-meetings-citing-state-law/article_0033e340-8a79-5947-8660-8bbb0f242368.html; Governor Pritzker’s COVID-19 Press Conference, April 29, 2020, https://coronavirus.illinois.gov/s/news-archive.
 25 ILCS 5/1.
 These meeting were held pursuant to Gubernatorial Executive Order 2020-07, which temporarily suspended provisions of the Open Meetings Act requiring in-person attendance by members of a public body. The General Assembly is not covered by the Open Meetings Act.
 Rick Pearson, Jamie Munks and Dan Petrella, “In historic pandemic-driven special session, Illinois lawmakers pass budget and clear path for Chicago casino,” Chicago Tribune, May 24, 2020,
https://www.chicagotribune.com/politics/ct-illinois-legislature-special-session-roundup-20200523-twl7cgkeknefpp2bf44g2aof4e-story.html; Civic Federation blog post, “Illinois FY2021 Budget Relies on Federal Loans and Backlog Borrowing,” June 2, 2020, https://www.civicfed.org/iifs/blog/illinois-fy2021-budget-relies-federal-loans-and-backlog-borrowing.
 Peter Hancock, “Lawmakers slowly preparing for session to reopen,” Capitol News Illinois, April 22, 2020, https://www.capitolnewsillinois.com/NEWS/lawmakers-slowly-preparing-for-session-to-reopen#new_tab.
 Ill. Const. art. IV, sec. 5.
 101st Illinois General Assembly, Senate Bill 2135, House Amendment 5, filed on May 23, 2020. An amended version of Senate Bill 2135 (Public Act 101-0640) was passed after the remote legislating provision and a provision to temporarily loosen disclosure requirements for public records were removed.
 101st Illinois General Assembly, Senate Resolution 1201, adopted on May 24, 2020.
 Communication between the Civic Federation and the Senate President’s Office, June 17, 2020.
 Maureen Foertsch McKinney, “Chicago Reps Want Special Session to Deal with Police Reform Issues,” NPR Illinois, June 3, 2020, https://www.nprillinois.org/post/chicago-reps-want-special-session-deal-police-reform-issues.