When the coronavirus pandemic hit hard in March, it prompted shutdowns of schools, businesses, sports venues, national parks and other sites. Legislatures across the country halted sessions, the Illinois General Assembly among them. The suspensions were a justified response to a grave public health emergency.
But a crisis of this severity is no time for lawmakers to stop doing the public’s business altogether. More than two dozen legislatures across the country quickly moved to let members vote or participate in floor deliberations or committee meetings by virtual means. In Vermont, legislators have used Zoom for most of their business since March. New York’s lawmakers approved a budget remotely. But the Illinois House voted down this approach.
In May, it met at a Springfield convention center to allow members to socially distance in the interests of safety. But it canceled its fall veto session rather than meet in person or figure out a way to meet virtually. Senate President Don Harmon and House Speaker Michael Madigan said face-to-face contact would be too hazardous at a moment when the pandemic is surging across the state.
Have they not heard of this thing called Zoom?
Gov. J.B. Pritzker has declined to push the issue, even though he could call the legislature into special session at any time. He offered this blithe observation in April: “It is possible (for the General Assembly) to meet at any time. It doesn’t have to be today or next week, or even next month, it really could be at any time, and again, that’s up to the legislature.”
That was April, long before anyone could have known virus complications would stretch into winter. Meanwhile, the General Assembly has a host of matters that need its attention, including the state’s deepening fiscal crisis and the devastation caused by the virus. Members were elected to confront such problems, not to duck them.
It means Pritzker is making decisions on virus mitigation plans without the input of 177 elected members of the General Assembly. From shutdown plans to federal funding and borrowing, to vaccine distribution, lawmakers have been shut out.
Redistricting reform fell to the wayside — again. Badly needed ethics reform and state spending decisions have been on hold. And the top-down approach being used now cuts the public out of the access it normally has.
And a deadly spike of coronavirus cases at the Illinois Veterans Home in LaSalle is unfolding without the proper public airing of what went wrong. The Senate held a committee hearing on the issue, but the House Veterans Affairs Committee, led by Rep. Stephanie Kifowit who has pledged to challenge Madigan for his speaker post, has not met. The committee can’t meet because the members cannot meet virtually.
This is, normally, where leaders would step in and fix it. They have not. What a disgrace.
There is bipartisan pressure to get back to work. Remember, lawmakers are still getting paid their full salaries and building up pension benefits. State Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, and Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, have been among those calling on Madigan to call a hearing of the House and Senate to discuss the status of the pandemic.
“Our idea is to do this immediately after Thanksgiving — with or without Madigan or Harmon,” Ford said. “The COVID virus is impacting everyone in the state, which makes it universal and not a partisan issue. That means all hands must be on deck.”
Remote operations are the simplest, cheapest way to allow legislative action while making deliberations visible to the public. As the Civic Federation noted, committee meetings had been replaced on and off with “working groups” holding virtual meetings. But those working group meetings were not required to be open to the public.
Moving to remote options should be a no-brainer. Public schools across the state have had to embrace remote learning. Plenty of offices have largely abandoned in-person operations in favor of directing employees to work from home if it’s feasible. All manner of conferences and conventions take place in cyberspace. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has abandoned in-person oral arguments and deliberations in favor of remote versions.
Those who reject virtual options, including, apparently, Pritzker, say that state law requires the legislators to meet “in the seat of government,” and says the governor may call a session “at some other place when it is necessary, in case of pestilence or public danger.” The novel coronavirus obviously qualifies as a pestilence.
It’s reasonable to argue that “some other place” means a physical site, which would rule out virtual sessions. But that’s why the two chambers should convene briefly — they should have months ago — to amend the law. A measure to make the change was voted down by the House last spring. But that was before any of us knew how long the coronavirus battle would take. It is not too late to reverse course.
As millions of Americans have learned over the course of this year, the threat posed by COVID-19 is too great to keep doing things the way they have always been done. But it’s not a justification for ducking responsibility or putting off important tasks. It’s an urgent reason for finding new ways to do what needs to be done. The General Assembly should quit stalling and get to work.
Chicago Tribune 11/30/20