COVID-19 delays start of 2022 General Assembly; drafting a state budget remains a priority
For Democrats, the spring 2022 session of the Illinois General Assembly will focus on drafting a budget that responds to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Republicans, the session will give another opportunity to highlight missed opportunities by Democrats to stem crime waves affecting many parts of Illinois and root out corruption.
At least that’s what key legislative leaders predict for the session, which begins Wednesday.
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“Passing another responsible, balanced budget will be at the top of the list,” Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, told The State Journal-Register.
Another priority, Harmon said, will be “the legislative oversight of laws that we’ve already passed.”
The session had been scheduled to begin one day earlier, but rising numbers of COVID-19 cases statewide prompted Illinois House and Senate leaders to cancel session days scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday.
Moreover, Harmon and House Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch said in a news release that the following session week, Jan. 11-13, is "likely to be canceled amid the ongoing global pandemic." The legislative leaders didn't comment on potential session-day cancellations after that week.
"In the past two weeks, Illinois' daily average of COVID-19 cases has increased 130%, and hospitalizations have risen 50%," Welch, D-Hillside, said in the release issued Thursday. "This pandemic is not over."
Harmon added leaders "continue to monitor the situation in an effort to protect our colleagues, our staffs and everyone else who is part of a legislative session day. We have work to do, and we've proven we can do it, minimize exposure and keep people healthy and safe. I encourage everyone to take advantage of the vaccines and booster shots available to protect themselves and those around them."
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Even though Republicans occupy super-minorities in the Illinois House and Senate, the House Republican Caucus will use the session to continue promoting its “Reimagine Illinois” initiatives related to fiscal responsibility, ethics reforms, job opportunities and public safety, according to Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria.
Federal pandemic relief money flowing to Illinois has masked chronic overspending by the state and allowed Democrats to unfairly compliment themselves for fiscal restraint, Spain said.
Republicans, he said, have “an opportunity of a lifetime” in the November general election to gain more seats in the state House and Senate, and even win a majority in the House, amid voter dissatisfaction with Democrats Gov. JB Pritzker and President Joe Biden along with policies that have caused Illinois to lose population.
Commenting about the upcoming session, Democrat and Republican legislators pointed to why voters should back their parties’ candidates in a year when the governor, all 118 House seats, and all 59 Senate seats will be up for election Nov. 8.
'Do no harm' approach
The Democratic-controlled General Assembly will begin 2022 after “extraordinarily productive legislative sessions” in 2021, Harmon said.
The 2021 “lame-duck” session in January, the spring session and a fall “veto session” yielded legislation signed into law by Pritzker that included a balanced budget with progress in reducing what is known as the state’s multibillion-dollar “structural deficit.”
Legislation spearheaded by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus and passed in 2021 will end the state’s cash bail system in January 2023, mandate the use of police body cameras in a phased-in schedule that begins Jan. 1, and puts in place other measures to address police brutality, root out bad cops and limit police discretion on the use of force.
The General Assembly also passed landmark legislation to promote clean energy, repealed the state’s parental notification requirement for minors seeking an abortion after May 2022, and limited the Illinois Right of Conscience Act for people trying to use the law as a defense to opt-out of COVID-19 vaccine and testing requirements.
The first few weeks of the spring session typically are dominated by legislative committee meetings, Harmon said. The Senate is prepared to conduct those meetings via Zoom, as was the case in 2021, he said.
The House conducted many committee hearings on Zoom, as well, though Spain said he has found virtual hearings “very ineffective.” He said he hopes the pandemic can allow for more in-person interactions between lawmakers.
Lawmakers usually don’t like to take potentially controversial votes in an election year, and so for Democrats “it’s really a case of ‘do no harm,’” said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield.
“I suspect the only thing they really have to do is the budget,” he said.
Redfield expects Democrats' budget plans for fiscal 2023, which begins July 1, 2022, to once again emphasize funding for education and social services — priorities backed by key Democratic constituencies.
The task will be made easier by COVID-19 relief money still headed to Illinois, Redfield said, though House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, said improvements in the state’s fiscal condition began with Democratic leadership before the pandemic.
“There’s still more to be done,” Harris said.
“The credit agencies have all agreed that Illinois is on the right track, and we’ve received the first credit upgrades in 20 years,” Harmon added.
He said attributed the fiscal improvements to “the joint commitment of the governor and the House and Senate Democrats to be responsible, to pay our bills, to use the federal relief money the way it was intended — not to create new, permanent programs but to make investments that will help us get out of the pandemic as quickly as we can and put people to work.”
On the agenda: deficit, ethics
Pritzker defended the current fiscal year’s $43.2 billion state budget, which was passed by the General Assembly with no Republican votes and took effect July 1.
Republicans said the spending plan was irresponsible, but Pritzker said Democrats passed “a real balanced budget ... for the third straight year.”
An upswing in expected revenues during Illinois’ economic recovery allowed Democrat leaders to restore several but not all nine tax breaks Pritzker initially proposed to eliminate.
The governor said more than $660 million in expected annual savings by eliminating most of the breaks will chip away at the structural deficit.
Prizker said the budget plan “addresses the historical structural deficit and makes responsible choices: Paying off debt early, nearly eliminating our backlog of bills and making critical investments to stimulate economic growth, jobs and opportunity for our people.”
Pritzker said Republicans wanted to use one-time money from the federal American Rescue Plan “to kick the budget ‘can’ down the road and give favors to wealthy business interests. Instead, those dollars should be used to bring real relief to working families and spur economic recovery and safety in our communities.”
The general revenue fund budget for fiscal 2022 includes $1.5 billion in federal stimulus funding. The budget fully funds a recommended $350 million boost in the school aid formula that Pritzker proposed to forgo in February when the state’s revenue picture was less certain.
The spending plan contains no tax increases, and it avoided a 10% cut initially suggested by Pritzker in 2021 in the share of the state income tax funneled to municipalities and transit districts.
The budget envisions paying off the remaining $2 billion in the $3.2 billion that Illinois borrowed from the federal government to shore up state finances during the pre-vaccine peak in the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Harmon said lawmakers in 2022 will need to do their part through legislation to help people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic “who have been hurt so badly in terms of their health and their economic well-being.
“Businesses have been closed. People have been out of work,” he said. “It’s really incumbent on us to do as much as we can to make sure those people who have lost so much have a chance here.”
Harris said those needs include shoring up the state’s behavioral health and mental health treatment programs, which have been strained during the pandemic.
“So many people are suffering,” he said.
Other than long-term state budget issues, Redfield said, “Democratic constituencies don’t have a lot to complain about. There’s not a lot left on the table for the progressive agenda.”
And though major Republican legislative proposals probably will be ignored by Democrats, Democrats may try to work with Republicans to pass another ethics reform bill, he said.
The ethics bill signed into law in 2021 was criticized by Republicans and good-government groups as too weak, he said.
Ethics reform doesn’t cost anything, and such bills typically attract support from both parties, Redfield said.
Another ethics bill would “inoculate the governor and the Democratic majority” from some criticism by Republicans, he said.
The legislature needs to take more action to prepare for the elimination of cash bail, Redfield said, but action taken in 2022 probably won’t hurt Democrats at the ballot box in November because the new no-bail system won’t take effect until 2023.
“The law does not mean that dangerous criminals will be released," Harmon said. "In fact, it’s the opposite. Even dangerous criminals with money will be held.
“We’re trying to make sure the decision about releasing a defendant prior to trial is based on the risk that that defendant poses to the community, not whether they’re rich or poor,” he said.
It’s unclear whether the legislature will appropriate money to counties in 2022 to make up for the expected future loss of bail-related revenue or to help pay for massive changes in county-level pre-trial systems mandated by the Illinois Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today (SAFE-T) Act.
Spain said he would like to see the act repealed. The law already has made Illinoisans less safe by making it harder for police departments to attract and retain officers, he said.
The SAFE-T Act has played a role in recruitment and retention issues faced by police departments, but the situation “is more complicated than that,” according to Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.
“I attribute it more to the public discourse that includes so much damaging hyperbole” about the actions of police, Wojcicki said. “I am not defending every action of every cop. I have acknowledged over and over that there are problems that need to be addressed. That’s why our association has been a leader in calling for more accountability, more training, and reforms to address problems of the past and present.”
Contact Dean Olsen: email@example.com; (217) 836-1068; twitter.com/DeanOlsenSJR.