In the wake of the truncated four-day meeting that marked the end of the 2020 spring session of the General Assembly, there was plenty for lawmakers to crow about and also to complain about.
Who did what depended a lot on party labels.
A budget was passed that will keep the state running during the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout from it. But for better or worse, the budget avoided deep cuts and relies on the budget relies on generosity from Washington that hasn’t materialized yet.
It saw a rebuke of Gov. JB Pritzker who wanted a law passed that gave his administration clear authority to fine businesses that reopened prematurely. The Democratic majorities in the House and Senate did not approve it. Pritzker called it “a complete abdication of responsibility on the part of the legislature.”
Legislation that would have allowed the General Assembly to meet remotely and let governments delay open records requests during a pandemic were beaten back. Republicans didn’t get the input they wanted into Pritzker’s reopening plans, but an oversight commission was created to review them. The GOP said it was useless.
And hundreds of issues big and small that lawmakers and others wanted considered during the spring session – from remap reform to stronger ethics laws to property tax relief – have been put off for another day.
Here’s how some Springfield-area lawmakers summed up the session:
Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield
McClure said it was a positive thing that the session was held in Springfield and not some other location. He also cited legislation that makes it a felony to assault a retail worker who is enforcing store policies on wearing a mask and distancing during the pandemic.
McClure also called the updated capital plan a positive. It includes a mix of older projects whose funding is being continued and new projects. McClure said he was able to secure funding to repair a railroad underpass on Cockrell Lane in his district.
Despite the shortened session, the legislature should have taken up stronger ethics reforms, McClure said. A task force formed to recommend improved ethics laws has all but disappeared during the coronavirus pandemic and has yet to deliver recommendations.
He also still wants to see a delay in any more increases in the state’s minimum wage or allowing a lower wage in southern Illinois.
“No one with any common sense can say it costs the same to live in Springfield as in downtown Chicago,” he said.
Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur
Although most Republicans complained that the new budget is precariously balanced on the idea the state will be getting more money from Washington to cope with the virus, Scherer said the state had no choice.
“To lose so much revenue, and there are basic needs that have to be met for our citizens, we’re just having to borrow money from the federal government and pay it back. We really have no other choice,” she said.
On the down side, Scherer said she had a lengthy list of bills she wanted addressed this year that are going to have to wait. If the legislature can’t get to them later this year, she and every other lawmaker will have to start over again from scratch because a new edition of the General Assembly starts in January.
Although she shares a party with the governor, Scherer said she was not surprised that his request for legislation stipulating that businesses could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor for reopening too soon failed to go anywhere.
“I think that at a certain point people were like we can’t take it anymore,” Scherer said. “So then all the conflict came. At that point, I feel that the legislature felt he was going to have to continue to make his decisions on his own. We weren’t going to just give him a blank check and just say make any rule and any law that you want and we will approve it.”
She also said Phase 3 is about to start and “I really think a lot of things are going to change when we move into Phase 3.”
Rep. Mike Murphy, R-Springfield
Murphy said the two key points of the session were ensuring the General Assembly will continue to meet in Springfield and that Pritzker’s legislation was stopped.
The legislature debated the idea that lawmakers could meet remotely in an emergency situation, but the idea got shelved.
“I think it’s important that we meet as a General Assembly and have an opportunity for interaction and discussion amongst ourselves,” Murphy said. “A lot takes place on the floor that wouldn’t take place on a Zoom meeting.”
Murphy said the idea of fining businesses for reopening too soon is something that should be done by the legislature, not by issuing an emergency administrative rule as Pritzker tried to do. That the Democratic-controlled legislature didn’t pass the bill surprised him.
“It shows how much people across the state, Republicans and Democrats, were upset with his overreach,” he said.
A former restaurateur, Murphy said he was pleased that lawmakers passed a bill allowing bars and restaurants to sell cocktails to go.
Like other Republicans, Murphy was not happy with the budget that got passed.
“I cannot believe we passed a budget that was so far out of balance,” he said. “And no cuts were considered. Democrats said they did not want to cut by 35 percent. They gave no indication that they wanted to do any cuts.”
Murphy said he is still convinced lawmakers will end up with a COLA because they did not specifically vote to refuse it. Most Democrats and Comptroller Susana Mendoza said there is no money appropriated for lawmaker raises so they will not be getting an increase.
Murphy said that if additional money shows up in his paycheck, he will donate it to the St. John’s breadline.
Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield
Workers compensation protections and a revised tax structure for a Chicago casino were key achievements in Butler’s opinion.
The workers compensation protections provide potential compensation for workers who may have contracted COVID-19 on the job, but it also gives employers a chance to challenge the claim. The protections were an agreement between labor and management and replaced the protections Pritzker tried to impose by fiat and which were struck down in court.
Revenue from a Chicago casino is critical to paying for last year’s capital bill, Butler said. A revised tax structure was needed to entice a company to operate it.
Butler, though, had said for weeks that the state should delay on passing a budget until late June, just before the new fiscal year starts to give lawmakers a better idea of what state finances will look like.
“I think this really would have been a good year for us to be deliberative on the budget,” he said. “I don’t see any need why we needed to pass a budget (now).”
He also thinks lawmakers should have had a chance to make an up or down vote on Pritzker’s plan to gradually reopen the state. The governor said it is based on science, but many Republican lawmakers believe is being too slow in reopening and does not sufficiently account for regional differences in caseloads.
Butler thinks Democrats shied away from Pritzker’s fines legislation because they, like Republicans, heard loud public opposition to it.
“I think the people of Illinois spoke tremendously loud on that issue, probably more so than anything I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It was very obvious that thousands and thousands of Illinoisans were just beside themselves on this.”
He called the failure to act on ethics legislation a “glaring omission.”
Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill
Manar helped put together the budget that was approved. He said it is a “true response to COVID-19.”
“This will come out in the coming weeks and months, but this budget will directly respond to needs on the ground level in communities around Illinois,” he said. “That was a driving factor in the creation of this budget proposal.”
It fully pays the state’s pensions, he said, and any increases in lines for human services or public health “are very nominal.” Negotiators could have chosen to make cuts, but didn’t. That could have included cuts to state government that could have resulted in state workers losing their jobs.
“We chose not do,” he said.
As a key architect of the new school funding formula, Manar said it was disappointing to have to hold the line on providing more money to it in the budget, but there was no other choice.
The issue Pritzker wanted lawmakers to tackle was “horribly complicated” Manar said, in the sense it dealt with separation of powers, enforcement at the local level and budgetary aspects.
“All of those things play into the decision making process. So I’m not surprised it turned out the way it did,” he said.
Manar said a major disappointment from the abbreviated session was that he could not continue working on prescription drug affordability. Manar said he had filed multiple bills to build off progress from his bill to cap out of pocket insulin costs.
He also had hoped the legislature could deal with ethics reform during the spring session.
Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville
Davidsmeyer is disappointed that Republicans still ended up with no input on Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan to reopen the state.
“The whole reason Republicans wanted to be called back to Springfield was to have a discussion about how the state was run,” he said. “Getting to Springfield should have been a positive. We just kicked the can down the road.”
He isn’t impressed with a commission of lawmakers created to provide some oversight of the reopening plan. He said that is ineffectual and has no real authority.
An upside, though, was that Pritzker’s legislation was stopped.
“Not calling that bill at the end of the day was a huge positive,” he said. I think Democrats are getting a lot of pressure now. I think the tide is turning. People realize we need to reopen the economy.”
Another upside was that the plan to allow remote meetings of the General Assembly didn’t have the votes to pass, he said.
“Springfield is the seat of government and it should remain the seat of government,” Davidsmeyer said.
Contact Doug Finke: firstname.lastname@example.org, 788-1527, twitter.com/dougfinkesjr