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Time for the Illinois Legislature to get back to work — safely and remotely

State lawmakers are running out of time to vote on crucial matters, including a new state budget.

The Illinois State Capitol
Seth Perlman/AP

The Illinois Legislature must get back to work — safely and remotely.

Other state legislatures have begun to reconvene online and the Illinois Legislature should do so as well. And we can’t agree with those who say there’s an insurmountable legal obstacle to doing so.

Yes, a state statute requires that the Legislature meet in the seat of government — Springfield. But the statute also says the governor can convene a session of the Legislature elsewhere “in times of pestilence or public danger.”

If this is not a time of pestilence and public danger, we don’t know what would be.

Illinois lawmakers have not met in the Capitol since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, though the spring session was scheduled to run through May 31. As a result, important legislation, including a vote on the state’s budget for fiscal year 2021, which begins July 1, is stalled.

Nobody wants to put state lawmakers in physical peril. Many of them run a particular risk from the coronavirus because of their age or health. But we have learned during this pandemic that online meeting technology can work reasonably well. And if the usual Springfield windbagging is curbed, who’s to complain?

Whether Gov. J.B. Pritzker can convene a virtual legislative session without an in-person authorization vote by the Legislature is a matter of legal debate, and the governor is leaving the matter to the Legislature’s leaders.

But a simple solution would be for the Legislature to meet just once in person — as briefly as possible and while observing all safety guidelines — to approve online voting. The Illinois Department of Public Health already has issued safety guidelines for in-person meetings. From that point on, even through the fall legislative session, the Legislature could do their job remotely until it is safe for them, legislative staffers and the general public to gather in the Capitol again.

Online sessions will be far from ideal, as businesses and families are learning as they take to Zoom.

In Chicago, some aldermen say they felt frustrated when the City Council met online. It’s tougher to get your two cents in. And the Illinois House has more than twice as many members as the City Council — 118 compared with 50. The state Senate has 59 members.

The Legislature’s efforts to meet online might also be hindered by the fact that some members don’t really buy the need for all this social distancing stuff.

State Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, has said she will attend her church when services resume even if not authorized by Pritzker’s stay-at-home executive order. Two other downstate lawmakers have sued to overturn the order. Still other members of the Legislature have objected to any requirement that people wear face masks.

The way we see it, those folks likely represent only a small minority of legislators. If they can’t respect the rules of social distancing, they should stay away from Springfield even for a quickie legislative session. They won’t be missed.

There are other obstacles to a brief meeting in Springfield that will have to be addressed, but nothing that can’t be overcome. Most obviously, lawmakers will require safe places to stay and eat because it could take a couple of days to vote to authorize online meetings. Three readings of a bill usually are required in both the House and Senate.

Legislators are quick to point out that they have not been idle. Using services such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, Google Meet and WebEx, they have been meeting online in working groups to negotiate legislation and refine the wording so that bills are ready to go and queued up for a vote when the time comes.

But that’s our point: The Legislature is running out of time to actually vote on important matters, including:

  • The new state budget. For a few years under Gov. Bruce Rauner, Illinois stumbled along without a formal budget and the consequences were miserable. Bills piled up and essential services went unfunded. For Illinois to go without a budget again while the pandemic rages would be unconscionable.
  • A $3.8 billion state program to compensate hospitals for treating Medicaid patients is up for renewal, but hospitals disagree on how to restructure the program to more equitably allocate funds. Some smaller hospitals say they’ll have to cut services or close altogether if they don’t get a greater share of the money.
  • The pandemic itself. Pritzker has led the fight against the coronavirus in Illinois and we’d say he’s done a more than credible job. But downstate legislators are right that the legislative branch should be a partner in making the big decisions, especially with respect to efforts to aid small businesses and the newly unemployed.

To make it easier to maintain social distancing, the Legislature could meet at the 44,000-square-foot Bank of Springfield Center, a convention venue just a mile from the Capitol. Or they could meet on a staggered schedule in the Capitol, with just a few legislators at a time entering the building to cast votes to authorize online sessions.

In times of crisis, effective governance matters more than ever. The Illinois Legislature has a job to do.

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