FILE - Speaker Michael Madigan

Rep. Michael Madigan speaks after being voted Speaker of the Illinois House for the 17th time Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019.

(The Center Square) – It’s clear to see the impact COVID-19 has had on the Illinois General Assembly by reviewing what the priorities were at the beginning of the year versus what the legislature accomplished.

The year started with discussions over banning gas-powered leaf blowers, or requiring gasoline to be pumped by an attendant. There were also criminal justice reforms Democrats prioritized like ending cash bail, or the issues Republicans were after like lowering the state’s second-highest-in-the-nation property taxes.

After the tumultuous 2019 where several lawmakers faced federal charges and offices were raided, Gov. J.B. Pritzker in January said ethics were going to be a major focus.

“Most states have a revolving door [prohibition] for legislators and it’s time for Illinois to join them,” Pritzker said in his State of the State Address in January. “Elected officials should not be allowed to retire and immediately lobby their former colleagues. It’s wrong and it’s got to stop.”

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and things came to a grinding halt. A commission investigating reforms was supposed to submit proposals in March, but never did. Since then, federal prosecutors revealed a nine-year long ComEd bribery scheme implicating House Speaker Michael Madigan with criminal cases still pending.

Despite the COVID-19 crisis, the governor never called a special session of the Illinois Legislature. Of the nearly 60 days scheduled for 2020, they met for only about 18 of them.

Three of those days in May, the House met at a convention center in Springfield, rather than the capitol building to keep socially distant, costing taxpayers $143,000. That’s when the legislature passed the largest spending plan in history, relying on new revenue a progressive income tax that voters later rejected and federal aid that never materialized.

Last month, after the House and Senate canceled fall veto session, Pritzker declined to call a special session to deal with any issue, let alone the unbalanced budget.

“There’s no doubt, there’s a law that allows the governor to call a special session but I just want to point out that just because you call a special session in an environment like this where COVID is rampant does not mean that members would actually show up,” Pritzker said.

The legislature has also largely neglected to hold any public oversight hearings all pandemic with the exception of a House and Senate hearing of the COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ home.

Republicans have for months demanded lawmakers meet to tackle the issues like the budget, the backlog in the state’s unemployment system and gun owner applications, or a slew of other issues.

The legislature is scheduled back the second week of January, just before the new General Assembly is seated.


Associate Editor

Greg Bishop reports on Illinois government and other issues for The Center Square. Bishop has years of award-winning broadcast experience and hosts the WMAY Morning Newsfeed out of Springfield.