In a special legislative session called in response to the coronavirus pandemic, state lawmakers debated bills through masks and the Illinois House met on the floor of a downtown Springfield convention center to provide proper social distancing.
The three-day session stretched into four and then into the early morning hours of a fifth day, Sunday, before lawmakers adjourned until the fall.
Here’s a look at what got done — and what didn’t.
Saturday night and early Sunday morning, the Illinois House and Senate passed a $40 billion maintenance-level budget that would rely heavily on federal funding to close a gaping pandemic-driven deficit. The spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1 would allow for borrowing of up to $5 billion from the Federal Reserve that would be repaid with expected but uncertain federal aid from Washington. State officials also hope there will be a loosening of restrictions on how the state can spend $3.5 billion in federal aid the state has already received.
The budget boosts spending from the current level for some social services, including increases for the departments of Public Health, Human Services, and Children and Family Services. Education funding, from kindergarten through college, would be held flat.
Republicans voiced opposition to the budget, which deputy House GOP leader Tom Demmer of Dixon described as being “balanced on a wing and a prayer.”
Legislation that changes the tax structure of a potential Chicago casino could put the city closer than ever to finally landing a gambling emporium. The casino is seen as a key funder of the state’s $45 billion capital plan, passed last year, but the initial tax setup was deemed by a consultant as “onerous” and one that would keep investors at bay. Mayor Lori Lightfoot lobbied for more favorable rates, and she got them this time after falling short in the General Assembly’s fall veto session.
Lawmakers approved a measure that would allow workers considered “essential” under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s statewide stay-at-home order who contract the new coronavirus to qualify for workers’ compensation benefits with the assumption that the virus was contracted on the job. Employers could contest the claims by showing evidence an employee contracted the virus somewhere other than the workplace or that the employer was following state and federal public health guidelines.
Voting by mail would be expanded for the Nov. 3 election as another coronavirus precaution. The legislation, which Pritzker has indicated he will sign, would have vote-by-mail applications sent to everyone who voted in the 2018 general election, the 2019 municipal election or this year’s March 17 primary, as well as to voters newly registered since the primary or who changed their addresses. It would also make the day of the election, Nov. 3, a government and school holiday so schools can be used as polling places without risks to students and teachers.
Cocktails to go
In another bill driven by the pandemic, establishments would be able to sell cocktails for pickup and delivery in sealed containers. Third-party services like Grubhub and DoorDash would be prohibited from making cocktail deliveries. The measure also extends liquor licenses for 120 days and delays license fees for six months after restaurants and bars are allowed to reopen to the public. It would take effect immediately upon the governor’s signature and expire in one year.
What didn’t get done
The four-day session resulted in a flurry of bills, but much of what was on the General Assembly’s agenda before the pandemic, along with some proposals in response to COVID-19, fell by the wayside in the truncated spring session. Here’s some of what didn’t get done:
- A bipartisan commission had a March 31 deadline to propose changes to the state’s government ethics and lobbying laws in response to an ongoing public corruption probe that has stretched from City Hall to the Illinois Capitol. Once the pandemic hit, that was put on hold, and the issue was not addressed in the special session.
- Another bipartisan task force was supposed to come up with proposals to ease the state’s enormous property tax burden. Its work devolved into partisan squabbling, and a final report was never issued. In response to the pandemic, lawmakers approved a measure that would allow counties to suspend interest and penalties on late property tax payments for 120 days or until there is no longer a statewide public health emergency due to COVID-19. But nothing was done to deal with the long-term problem.
- The special session began with lawmakers on a bipartisan panel blocking Pritzker’s emergency rule that would have made businesses that violate his stay-at-home order subject to a Class A misdemeanor. Lawmakers promised a legislative fix but adjourned until November without approving one.
- Two versions of an agreement to make some changes to the state’s recreational marijuana law were in the Senate but never called for House votes.
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