December 21, 2020
For more than nine months, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has done an admirable job of steering our state through the most dangerous public health crisis in a century. Unfortunately, the work for which voters elected the Illinois General Assembly has remained largely undone.
Since the legislature (rightfully) adjourned in early March for the health and safety of members and staff, the people’s business has not been conducted in any manner that can be considered best practice or allowing for public access.
The groundwork for budgetary and related legislation in an abbreviated May session was done entirely privately in informal working groups that, unlike meetings of the General Assembly and its committees and commissions, are not required to be open to the public. Subsequently, a $43 billion budget, composed of thousands of pages of legislation, was passed with almost no time for public vetting.
While many other states used their spring sessions to authorize permanent or temporary policies for meeting remotely, and while the city of Chicago and Cook County remotely conducted business as usual, no meaningful legislation to carry out the people’s work in Illinois during this once-in-a-century public health crisis was enacted. The House failed to pass any remote legislating measures. The Senate passed a rule to allow for limited remote sessions when a quorum of members is physically present. However, as the Civic Federation warned over the summer, it is impossible to know when the full legislature will again be able to be physically present.
Accordingly, the in-person veto session for November and December was canceled to (again, rightfully) protect the health and safety of members, staff and the community. Because the House had previously declined to make a single meaningful change to its ability to operate, attempting a remote or hybrid session was rendered impossible. Public health warnings earlier in the year of autumn coronavirus surges, flu-season challenges or any other potential emergency were evidently not taken to mean that the General Assembly should figure out a way to authorize themselves to do their job for the remainder of the year.
Meanwhile, working groups continue to meet in private. The Senate has held many remote subject matter hearings, which have allowed for limited public participation. However, during a time when many Illinois local governments, human service agencies, businesses and individuals are barely hanging on, subject matter deliberations should be a floor and not a ceiling.
Pritzker recently stepped forward to identify $711 million in proposed budget cuts to partially close the fiscal year 2021 budget gap. It is now the job of the General Assembly to work to analyze those proposed cuts, both for feasibility and merit and, more importantly, to come up with additional changes to finish the work of balancing the budget. This work must absolutely not be carried out in private working groups at the direction of special advisory committees. To do so is unacceptable and further excludes the public from the budgetary process at a time when its impact is potentially harsher on Illinoisans than in recent memory.
Without the power to go back in time to March or May and authorize remote legislating, the General Assembly has an immediate responsibility to develop a workable path forward. Pritzker has been the lone voice of state government in recent months, issuing public safety executive orders. The state of Illinois urgently needs more active and public help from all 177 members of the General Assembly. The voters who elected them and put their trust in them to carry out the people’s work deserve to have a functional legislature.
Laurence Msall is president of the Civic Federation.