The Illinois General Assembly will return to Springfield for three days beginning Wednesday to take up a spring session workload long delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The extraordinary safety measures that will govern the session were delineated in a letter last week from Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan to the House minority leader. Legislators will have to pledge to follow Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines to prevent the spread of the highly contagious and potentially lethal coronavirus. They include pre-session testing of all legislators for COVID-19.
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Eschewing the traditional Capitol setting, the House will be called to order six blocks away at the Bank of Springfield Center in downtown Springfield, to take advantage of the spacious convention center floor for social distancing.
The Senate, whose membership is half the House’s 118 seats, will meet in its regular chamber, Senate President Don Harmon said in a statement. The Oak Park Democrat rallied senators to return to action with the “cooperative spirit of bipartisan achievement" they've shown before.
“This global pandemic has decimated our state and local economies regardless of political affiliation,” Harmon said. “From far-flung living rooms, kitchen tables and home offices, senators have been working together — while apart — to figure out what we can and need to do now.”
Legislators, whom Gov. J.B. Pritzker declared essential workers and not subject to his seven-week-old stay-at-home order scheduled to expire May 30, have nonetheless been absent from the Statehouse since early March to prevent spreading sickness. That period represents the heart of the Illinois General Assembly's spring-session calendar, ending with a scheduled May 31 adjournment and typically a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Pritzker implored lawmakers to help those left out of initial federal relief deals.
“Lots of people fell through the cracks,” Pritzker said at his daily COVID-19 briefing in Chicago.
Relief won't come from the state treasury. Tax revenue lost because of the pandemic has opened a $7 billion deficit in the current budget and next year’s. Illinois will be dependent on the federal government, Pritzker said.
“We need to rely upon federal government and its support for all the states in order for us to provide the services that people need or for us to pay for the education that our kids need, and for us to support our businesses and our families,” Pritzker said.
Madigan’s letter to House GOP Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs said all state representatives must pledge to abide by public health guidelines for safely congregating. In addition to pre-trip testing, they include agreeing to undergo body temperature checks upon entering the building for sessions, wearing provided face coverings whenever meeting with staff members or colleagues, avoiding outside meetings or social engagements, and undergoing another test upon returning home.
It won’t be the first time lawmakers convened outside of the current Statehouse, which welcomed its first session in 1877. In recent history, the legislative chambers were undergoing renovation when then-Gov. George Ryan called a special session in the summer of 2000 to temporarily remove the state sales tax on gasoline during a price spike. Sessions were conducted in the auditorium of the Howlett Building next door to the Capitol.