Politics in a pandemic: previewing the 2020 special legislative session


SPRINGFIELD, Illinois (NEXSTAR) — The Coronavirus sidelined the state legislature for 11 weeks. Now, lawmakers are returning to the capital city to tackle COVID-19 and the many ways it has impacted the state.

The return of the legislature comes at a time when Governor J.B. Pritzker’s executive powers facea number of court challenges from business owners who feel he has overstepped his constitutional authority by ordering their businesses to remain closed, while he has allowed other businesses he deems “essential” to remain open.

Protesters who have surrounded the statehouse and government headquarters in Chicago on consecutive weekends have said they plan to organize demonstrations to oppose the restrictions.

The Governor’s executive powers face their first test Wednesday morning when the bipartisan Joint Committee on Administrative Rules convenes to review an emergency rule the Pritzker administration filed, which threatens to punish businesses who defy his orders with a Class A misdemeanor, an offense which carries a fine of up to $2,500 or nearly a year in prison.

Pritzker has argued the Illinois Department of Public Health Act already includes that penalty, but the same law also requires local health officials to give businesses a written notice before ordering them to close their business to the public. The law also places the burden of proof on public health departments to demonstrate to a judge that there is reason to believe the disease was carried to or spread inside the business.

“To obtain a court order,” the law states, “the Department, by clear and convincing evidence, must prove that the public’s health and welfare are significantly endangered by a person or group of persons that has, that is suspected of having, that has been exposed to, or that is reasonably believed to have been exposed to a dangerously contagious or infectious disease.”

Lawyers challenging the Governor’s executive orders have argued the state has not met its obligation to trace the COVID-19 outbreak to each business it has ordered to close, and therefore the broad closures carried out under the Illinois Emergency Management Act — a different statute than the one that carries the criminal penalties — are unconstitutional. The Pritzker administration’s emergency rule seeks to effectively tie those two parts of the law together as one, though several legislators have objected, citing a separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government.

The highly anticipated JCAR meeting, comprised of six Democrats and six Republicans, could signal whether or not the legislature wishes to challenge or limit the Governor’s authority. Republicans have said they will vote to block the Pritzker rule, but Democrats have largely avoided public comment on the matter.

It is against that backdrop that the House and Senate will convene to address a number of other pressing matters.

The Illinois House of Representatives will spread out in the Bank of Springfield Convention Center. The Senate will sequester inside the statehouse. Both chambers will limit the number of staff members allowed inside. Small public viewing areas were equipped with television feeds for lobbyists or other members of the public to sit and listen to the debate. In both chambers, media will be limited to a small pool who feed footage and coverage to the rest of the reporters.

The Governor’s original budget address is now moot, decimated by the Coronavirus closures and their choking effect on the state’s sales taxes, income taxes and corporate income taxes. Lawmakers will have to go back to the drawing board to find ways to fund state operations with a lot less money than they had anticipated, and without any concrete guarantees from Congress that additional relief funding could be coming in the near future.

The legislature also plans to consider expanding the vote-by-mail program. Sources say there is considerable support for making Election Day a state holiday, and some legislators eager to show compassion to struggling bars and restaurants have said they may move to allow them to sell cocktails curbside.

The state’s outmoded hospital assessment program is in line for a tune-up. The House and Senate will also debate the pros and cons of the Governor’s proposed progressive income tax to determine the language that will appear on the November ballot.

At the start of the year, Pritzker promised to strengthen the state’s ethics laws in an effort to crack down on corruption, and to provide property tax relief to Illinois homeowners. Those issues fell off of the legislative agenda in the wake of the Coronavirus, along with a push to include a ballot question asking voters for input on the legislative map drawing process.

Lobbyists also have significant interest in drafting energy and gaming legislation that could allow for a Chicago casino or subsidies for utility companies. While those items are not clearly listed on the agenda for special session, there is nothing that would prevent lawmakers from including those ideas in other legislation.

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