Historic legislative session amid COVID-19 crisis holds plenty of minefields

Pass a budget with an estimated 35% revenue shortfall, dodge lawmakers scorning face masks, shake the Magic 8 ball for an estimate of federal aid, tweak the governor's reopening authority and finalize an income tax referendum by midnight Friday.

How hard can that be?

The General Assembly reconvenes today for a historic special session in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed 4,379 Illinoisans so far.

"The goal is to get in and get out in three days," Democratic state Rep. Fred Crespo of Hoffman Estates said.

But "I was advised to bring a couple of extra shirts," Republican state Sen. Don DeWitte of St. Charles said.

The No. 1 priority is passing the 2021 budget, no easy task with tax revenues tanking as a result of Illinois' stay-at-home order to reduce the spread of the respiratory disease.

"The question remains, what gets cut and what is the federal government's role?" asked DeWitte, who participated in a budget working group.

Federal funding is anticipated, but Congress is weeks away from passing another stimulus package. Revenues are down by about 35%, said Crespo, an assistant majority leader.

And, "because of the unknowns in regards to how much support will be coming from Congress ... we're likely to be forced to borrow money in order to avoid massive cuts that would clearly decimate necessary services during the current pandemic," Republican state Sen. Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods said.

Borrowing would require a supermajority and that could mean House Democrats, with 74 members, could fall short of the necessary 71 votes if there are absences, as Reps. Jonathon Carroll of Northbrook and Edgar Gonzalez Jr. of Chicago self-isolating for COVID-19.

That could make for some interesting negotiations with Republicans, who are champing at the bit to rewrite Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker's Restore Illinois five-phase, four-region reopening plan.

"Over 850,000 Illinois residents have recently lost their jobs and the unemployment rate is likely heading toward 15%," Barrington Hills Republican state Rep. David McSweeney said in a statement.

With hundreds of businesses closed across the state until some restrictions are lifted May 29, suburbs are beginning to chafe at the lost revenue, although Pritzker said it's essential to follow the rules to continue flattening the curve of the disease.

The governor's also under fire for an emergency rule last week empowering police to charge scofflaw businesses with a Class A misdemeanor for disobeying the stay-at-home rule.

And local Democrats are hearing loud and clear from constituents.

Legislation is percolating to create a bipartisan committee to coordinate with the governor on the recovery plan; what's not clear is whether the group will have teeth or be advisory.

"It's a balancing act," Crespo said.

Democratic Sen. Melinda Bush of Grayslake said, "We're all talking about how much executive power there should be. Are there areas where we have to codify things he has done? Most of us believe the governor is doing a really good job but we are always questioning."

A key Pritzker goal - passing a referendum on a graduated income tax in November - also must undergo legislative scrutiny regarding language for the ballot question.

Republican House Leader Jim Durkin and Senate Leader Bill Brady want to yank the referendum from the ballot but the votes likely aren't there, insiders said.

Along with policy questions, House members who convene at the Bank of Springfield Center Wednesday may need to pivot if downstate Republican state Reps. Darren Bailey and Brad Halbrook ignore rules about wearing face masks, as has been reported.

If so, House members will immediately hold a vote instituting rules for mask wearing with consequences like expulsion, said Crespo, who called the two "selfish."

"There are (lawmakers) with kids, people that are senior citizens, and other members with preexisting conditions who could be susceptible to the virus," he said.

Also on the radar are the Nov. 3 elections and whether all Illinois voters should have a mail-in ballot option.

"I think most voters believe during this crisis they should have an option," Bush said.

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Melinda Bush
Fred Crespo
Don DeWitte
Dan McConchie
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