Special Session Recap: Casinos and Curbside Cocktails, No Hearings on Restore Illinois Plan

Legislators are home in their districts and supposed to be self-isolating, now that they’re home from a whirlwind special session.

What was supposed to be a three-day special session that started last Wednesday stretched into four – five, technically considering the Senate didn’t complete its work until the wee hours of Sunday morning.

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Heading into it, lawmakers knew the “to do” list would be limited.

But Republican Sen. Representative Jil Tracy of Quincy says it was too rushed.

“I left the capitol, what at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning and I was very disappointed. We did a budget that I thought was outlandish, that I couldn’t support,” Tracy said. “We should have stayed longer.”

The GOP had been clamoring for a vote and hearings on public health guidelines for businesses as it relates to the coronavirus.

Tracy said her 11-county, western Illinois region has its own plan for reopening the state that’s safe, and builds in pauses in case there’s an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan, she said, lacks nuance and groups the state into only four regions, which is too broad.

She’s disgruntled that the legislature didn’t directly weigh in on it.

“I think the public wanted us to have those, they want more clarity as to what the rules are and the justification behind different rules,” she said. “I think if we talked through that the public would have felt more reassured that we were doing everything we could.”

Tracy said the legislature also should have at least debated allowing downstate businesses to delay having to comply with a statewide minimum wage hike; it’s set to increase from $9.25 to $10 in July. Tracy says that will make things even more difficult to businesses in her area already struggling because of coronavirus-mandated closures.

Legislators did pass measures to address the coronavirus, including a plan that toughens penalties on those who attack retail workers, after some customers have lashed out at employees who’ve tried to enforce mask and social distancing rules. Other measures include a bill that makes clear when workers who contract the coronavirus will receive workers' compensation, and legislation making it so sexual assault victims who can’t go to hospitals because of COVID-19 can instead go to certain other health centers for rape kit exams.

Another measure, sponsored by State Sen. Sara Feigenholtz, who represents a district including the thriving Boystown and Wrigleyville neighborhoods, will allow licensed establishments to serve pre-mixed cocktails curbside.

“Cocktails to go is another tool that we can give to bars and restaurants to allow them to become innovative, it’s one more thing that will help their bottom line” before they can safely reopen to customers, she said.

Chicago is in talks about how it could work in the city, given that Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said Chicago restaurants will not be ready to begin outdoor service this month, even as cafes, restaurants and bars will be permitted to under state metrics.

Lightfoot saw a major win during the condensed session, by winning the General Assembly’s approval for a new tax structure that will allow the city to move forward with a casino.

Rep. Ann Williams, whose district includes all or parts of North Center, Lincoln Square, Ravenswood and Roscoe Village neighborhoods, also said Chicago will benefit from the budget.

“First of all there was sufficient funding for keeping our essential services running and that goes for everything from police and fire operations to education, early childhood education. We have rent relief in there. We have early childhood funding also. And of course we have more additional funds to battle the COVID crisis itself, which is really, really critical,” she said.

“People most in need are often concentrated in urban areas, not always, but Chicago certainly has its fair share of people in need especially in terms of this crisis,” she added. “And this budget really does emphasize communities that are most in need and are traditionally underserved.”

The budget keeps funding for the 2021 fiscal year beginning in July mostly the same as it does for this year, with increases in certain areas like the Department of Children and Family Services.

It also creates a nearly $400 million fund for rent and mortgage relief.

Critics – like Tracy, who called it “outlandish” – decry that the budget continues old spending habits when the state’s revenues have taken a nosedive due to COVID-19, and fear that relying on $5 billion in borrowing with the hopes that the federal government will send more aid will leave the state in an even worse place should the feds not come through with additional assistance.

Rep. Williams has another concern.

She said it’s a mistake that the General Assembly failed to approve a means that would allow the legislature to convene virtually should there be a future emergency.

“As a legislature, we’ve had the opportunity now to see something that we never expected can happen. We need to be prepared for that,” she said. “We don’t know what will happen in the fall with the pandemic. We certainly hope there won’t be a second wave. We’re certainly hoping it will be manageable. But not knowing what the future holds, I think it’s critical to ensure that the General Assembly is able to meet remotely in emergency cases if we are absolutely unable to meet in person.”

Williams said plans to introduce a bill that would allow it.

The earliest that could be taken up is when the legislature next meets – in person. That’s scheduled for Nov. 17.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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