Illinois Lawmakers Will Meet on Budget, COVID-19 Issues Next Week

Members of the Illinois General Assembly will meet May 20 for the first time since the coronavirus hit “to conduct the critical work of state government in this unprecedented pandemic.”

“We are all looking forward to a return to some semblance of normalcy,” House Speaker Michael Madigan wrote in a letter to the chamber’s minority leader, Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs. “But we must also recognize that these are not normal times. A pandemic is not swayed by our speeches, by our desire for normalcy, or by political expediency.”

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Republicans have been clamoring for the legislature to convene, saying that running the state solely via Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive orders has usurped the authority of an equal branch of government and that Pritzker’s plan does not properly consider regional dynamics.

While the state Senate will gavel in from its chamber in the statehouse, the Illinois House will instead meet at Bank of Springfield convention center in downtown Springfield in order to more effectively practice social distancing.

Lawmakers will have to accessorize their suits with masks.

And there’s to be none of the typical post-session drinks and dinners with lobbyists, or meetings of morning running groups.

Legislators are being asked to sign a pledge committing to “refraining from extracurricular activities like non-essential meetings, gatherings, shared meals or drinks with colleagues, lobbyists or others while in session.”

The pledge also asks legislators – even if they have no flu-like symptoms – to get tested for COVID-19 within days before going to Springfield, and to be tested again upon returning home.

They’re also to travel to the capital city solo, and legislators who typically bunk together in apartments or houses should instead make accommodations to stay individually in a hotel room instead, according to an Illinois House of Representatives memo.

Pritzker had been noncommittal about when and whether the legislature would need to meet, on Tuesday he said the legislature “must convene so that we can begin to put our financial and economic house in order, even as we battle this terrible virus.”

When lawmakers do return next week, figuring out a budget as the pandemic continues to cause huge economic losses across the state will be near the top of the agenda.

“We’re going to have to talk about the budget. We have a very serious situation,” Republican state Sen. Dan McConchie said Wednesday on “Chicago Tonight.” “The projected revenues are going to be down over $4 billion for next year.” 

When you add other short-term borrowing requirements that will have to be paid back next year, he said, “We are looking at a nearly $7 billion hole.”

McConchie believes it’s time for legislators to weigh in on the governor’s plan to reopen the state.

“There’s a lot of issues that are associated with that. The fact that the governor has been operating clearly on his own for two months without any sort of input from the legislature. I think it’s time to hear from the people’s representatives in regards to the specifics there.”

Democratic state Sen. Kimberly Lightford agreed that the budget would be high on the list of issues to address, but said a clear order of business had not yet been communicated to lawmakers.

“There’s a number of tasks to do but I don’t know that we have an order as of yet,” said Lightford. “We know that we will have to tackle the budget. We will have to tackle constitutional amendments and anything COVID-19 related that will help us continue keeping the state of Illinois safe and financially sound.”

Given that African American and Latino residents “have been hit the hardest,” Democratic state Sen. Cristina Castro said that while she understands the desire to reopen the economy, safety has to remain a priority.

“It’s finding that balance,” said Castro. “It’s not an easy thing to do to safely as well as carefully opening the economy. My sister lives in Texas and they have seen a rise in cases since reopening the economy.”

State Rep. Avery Bourne, who represents a largely rural district in central Illinois, said she wants legislators to take a closer look at the reopening plan and the pace at which regions can resume economic activity.

“If you look at the data, in the region that we are in we would already fall into phase three in the governor’s plans,” said Bourne. “So I think they absolutely want to re-examine the plan. The governor has said that anyone who is critical of his plan or wants to re-examine it must want to reopen everything immediately and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’m in talks daily with mayors, business owners, chambers of commerce who want to do this safely. They want to do this the right way. But our numbers just do not look the same.”

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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