Today, Illinois legislators filed legislation to allow the Illinois General Assembly to meet, conduct legislative business and vote remotely in the event of a pandemic or other emergency which renders it dangerous or impossible to meet in person.
“In March, we had no idea a pandemic would sweep the globe, bringing life as we know it to a halt,” said Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago), chief sponsor of the bill in the House. “While we were able to meet for a few days in May to conduct urgent business, we continue to face a crisis of epic proportions – both on the public health front and in terms of our budget situation - that requires legislative attention.”
Sen. Rob Martwick, (D-Chicago), chief sponsor of the legislation in the Senate, drove to Springfield to meet in person for the May session despite a preexisting condition which put his health particularly at risk.
“The Governor has emergency powers to secure the health of our state,” said Martwick. “However, it is the legislature’s responsibility to enact the long term policies, in accordance with the needs of our unique and diverse constituencies, which will chart the path forward as we recover from this pandemic.”
Earlier this year, the Illinois Senate adopted rules to permit legislators to participate remotely as long as a physical quorum is present, as well as provide for virtual committee hearings. A bill to permit virtual lawmaking failed by one vote in the House during the May legislative session, the last time the Illinois General Assembly met.
“The intent of the legislation is to provide for the very rare circumstances where it is extremely dangerous or impossible to meet.” said Williams. “It’s clear that the Legislature operates most effectively in person, when we can all meet and interact with each other more easily.”
Williams and Martwick consider this legislation to be a starting point for discussion, and plan to solicit the input of colleagues on both sides of the aisle as to how best to proceed.
“This impacts each of us, our families and our communities,” said Martwick. “It’s critical we develop an approach which makes sense, can be implemented easily and will work for all of us.”
The Illinois bill provides that if a joint proclamation is made by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate, members of the Illinois General Assembly may participate remotely in session and in committee - and requires the House and the Senate to adopt rules to permit such participation. Remote participation is defined as simultaneous, interactive participation by members not physically present. The bill also permits a quorum to be present remotely - thus allowing all members to participate remotely. Importantly, the bill contains an explicit provision to ensure that members of the public can view such sessions and committee meetings in real time.
“Unfortunately, if we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that anything can happen and we must be ready,” said Robyn Gabel (D-Evanston), cosponsor of the legislation. “We need to be prepared not just to address the current situation, but for any other emergency which may arise in the future. It is the responsible thing to do.”
“We owe a duty to the people of Illinois to do our jobs and address these critical issues now; we can’t afford to wait the pandemic out to take action,” said Terra Costa Howard (D-Glen Ellyn), cosponsor of the legislation.
State legislatures around the country have taken various approaches to meeting during the pandemic – including convening outside, utilizing hybrid sessions of in-person and virtual hearings, meeting completely remotely, and instituting safety precautions and protocols. Since the beginning of 2020, in 24 states, at least one chamber has adopted legislation allowing for remote meetings, voting, and operations, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Most of the provisions can only be utilized in times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Two states, Oregon and Wisconsin, already had laws in place to allow virtual meetings prior to 2020.
“It has been over 200 days since the Illinois Legislature has met, even as we continue to face the most significant crisis in generations,” said Sen. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago), cosponsor of the legislation. “It is an abdication of our responsibility not to find a way to make it work. A majority of states have taken action - it’s time for Illinois to follow suit.”
“It is long overdue for the House to be able to remotely hold hearings and pass legislation, following the example set by our colleagues in the Senate earlier this year,” said Rep. Yoni Pizer (D-Chicago). “Under extraordinary circumstances, it is critical that we do what we were elected to do - make important decisions and respond to the needs of our constituents. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be such a circumstance.”
“When I voted yes for a remote legislating bill in May that failed to pass, I knew that a second effort was necessary to ensure that we have the ability to conduct legislative business even when being physically together in Springfield isn’t safe,” said Rep. John Connor (D-Lockport). “It’s the 21st century, and we have the technology to let us work remotely while maintaining public access, so let’s pass this bill and give ourselves the framework to do that work.”
* Rep. Tim Butler (R-Springfield) led the charge against the remote legislating bill in May. I asked him to comment…