Editorial: Even in COVID-shortened sessions, lawmakers face great opportunities - and risks
To some extent COVID-19 has had the appealing impact on official business in Springfield the past two years of limiting lawmakers' meeting time so severely that it has been harder for them to do much legislative damage. But groundbreaking actions on issues ranging from abortion rights to criminal justice reform prove government leaders can pass sweeping transformations even on a short schedule when they put their minds to it.
So, the prospect of a much-shortened spring session this year doesn't necessarily hold the promise of minimal legislative meddling. Although their scheduled April 8 adjournment is nearly two months earlier than usual, lawmakers certainly have the capacity to do much harm as well as much good in the coming three months. We hope they'll concentrate their efforts on minimizing the former and at least making some advances toward providing some stability and hope for a time when the pandemic is not dominating the attention of the public and policymakers.
In the matter of mitigating harm, they will have their hands full fine tuning the massive criminal justice reform package they approved last year. Although some of the legislation's most controversial provisions don't take effect until 2023, lawmakers are under pressure from police and tough-on-crime interests to modify policies on use of force, the elimination of cash bail, restrictions on pretrial incarceration and other reforms.
A strong case can be made that previous policies did little to reduce crime and much to deprive individuals and communities of resources they desperately need for the basic functions of life. But criminal justice agencies also have legitimate fears that the legislation is so expansive and vague that it may be hard for them to keep our communities safe.
As if to punctuate the importance of this issue, recent surges in carjackings, flash mobs and other dangerous crimes have emphasized that police need, if not more tools, at least different ones to keep our communities safe. Democrats have grown comfortable with firm majorities in both chambers and a hold on the governor's mansion, but those circumstances may shift rapidly, especially in the suburbs, if leaders take voters for granted and fail to deliver on issues that not only will protect the rights of suspects but also will reassure the safety of everyone else.
And lawmakers face other big agenda items, too, on matters like campaign funding, transparency, pensions and voter access. On all these issues, we hope lawmakers won't be so daunted -- or emboldened -- by the press for time that they fail to ensure that deep critical thinking overrides political prejudice in the making of policy.
Gov. JB Pritzker and key leaders have indicated a key priority must be to enact a stable and sustaining budget. Of course, they are right -- but much goes into achieving that goal. They still have not, for instance, produced a sustainable response to the pension crisis, and it will be no small task for a body intoxicated by the joy of spending to carefully and strategically manage billions of dollars in federal emergency aid that can mask serious long-term systemic issues.
Finally, we cannot reflect on the legislative agenda ahead without expressing hope for redistricting reform. The status quo survived calls for reform for the past 10 years and it's still pretty much solidly in charge. But complaints have emerged even from within the ranks of Democrats, especially in the suburbs, and we're counting on those voices to turn to action that will make a meaningful difference over the course of the next 10 years.