Is It Time to Get Back to Springfield?

The last time Illinois lawmakers were in Springfield – on March 5 – the World Health Organization had yet to declare the novel coronavirus a pandemic.

After nearly two months of absence from the capitol, Republican legislators are amplifying their calls that it’s time to return.

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“To allow the governor to continue to declare emergency declarations and keep this power for himself and run the government by one person” is a break from the intended system of checks and balances between the government’s co-equal branches, said state Rep. Dan Ugaste, R-Geneva.

But Democrats who control the General Assembly say it’s still unsafe to bring 177 lawmakers (and their germs) from all over the state – not to mention their staffs, lobbyists and the media – to the statehouse, then send them (and their germs) back to their communities.

Lawmakers are talking virtually, however, in “working groups” that, unlike legislative committees, are not open to the public.

Two Republican members of the Illinois House – Rep. Darren Bailey of Xenia and Rep. John Cabello, who is from the Rockford area – have filed lawsuits challenging Gov. J.B. Pritkzer’s consecutive stay-at-home executive orders.

Ugaste and his fellow Republicans aren’t going that route, though on Wednesday they questioned Pritzker’s authority to do so.

Ongoing 30-day orders seem to be “basically abdicating the power of the General Assembly,” Rep. Norine Hammond, R-Macomb, said.

While Pritzker has regularly held conference calls with legislators, Republicans say there is no opportunity for back-and-forth, or to ask the governor questions.

“We’re dealing with an emergency, I’m not looking to play politics. I just want to be heard. I want you to understand what my constituents want and what they need,” Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville, said of the administration. “The communication has been extremely lacking.”          

Pritkzer has maintained that he is in frequent contact with legislators, and he holds daily briefings with updates on the coronavirus.

While the governor could call the General Assembly into special session, it’s typically up to the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate to convene their respective chambers.

“I would appeal to everyone’s common sense. A dangerous, highly infectious virus is loose in our communities. You have stayed inside and practiced social distancing because you know it’s the right thing to do. You’ve done it because you care about your family, friends and neighbors,” Illinois Senate President Don Harmon said, in response to the Clay County court ruling that seeks to toss the Friday extension of Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.

Harmon’s spokesman said Tuesday that bringing senators back to Springfield could be potentially deadly.

“If you’ve been to the Capitol, you know legislative sessions are not conducive to social distancing. Congregating 177 lawmakers, hundreds of staff, security, media and others in one building — and then sending them all right  back to their families and communities — comes with potentially dire consequences that right now can and should be avoided,” a spokesman for Harmon said.

Meanwhile, Steve Brown, the spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, said he cannot say when representative should be back in session — and that nobody can at this point.

“We still put the safety of the public and members and staff at the top of the list, and really, until that can be resolved no one knows when we’ll return,” Brown said.

Brown said legislators have been focused on talking about what needs immediate attention, including things that might expire without legislative action, authority or licensing; and what laws may need to be changed directly due to the pandemic.

“It seems like almost every day people are learning new things that could be addressed,” Brown said.

There’s also the question of how legislators could meet.

Republicans say other essential workers go to work daily, while practicing social distancing measures and wearing masks, and the legislature could do the same.

But others say the legislature should explore virtual sessions or other options.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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